Orphaned at a young age, sisters Emilia and Luzia dos Santos are raised by their Aunt Sofia, a seamstress in the town of Taquaritinga do Norte in Brazil. A childhood fall from a tree causes a severe injury to Luzia’s arm, locking the joint at the elbow. Neighborhood children taunt Luzia by calling her Victrola, after the bent arm of the record player. The accident, combined with the mistreatment, causes Luzia to become more introverted—a contrast to her sunny, often flippant sister, who adores celebrity magazines and has a crush on her sewing teacher. When a group of cangaceiros—bandits living in the scrubland in the wilds of Pernambuco state—raid Taquaritinga, their leader, The Hawk, senses that Luzia is a kindred spirit. When The Hawk offers Luzia the opportunity to leave with the cangaceiros, she accepts, knowing that there is little for her in Taquaritinga.
After Luzia leaves, Emilia meets Degas Coelho, a young law student with a secret to hide. He offers to marry her and take her to Recife, providing the glamorous life she has always dreamed about. Emilia finds that big-city life is more difficult than she had expected, and Degas’s secret life becomes more difficult to hide. As Luzia and The Hawk become increasingly notorious for their violent criminal activities, Emilia wonders if her own secret—that her sister is the cangaceira known as The Seamstress—will be revealed, destroying the life that she has carefully constructed.
In The Seamstress, Peebles brings the history and culture of a part of the world rarely visited in English-language historical fiction. The pace of social, political, and technological change in Brazil during the early 20th century was rapid, and Emilia and Luzia’s story traces two women’s journey through these revolutionary times. The alternating viewpoints allow readers to follow both sisters’ journeys, both physical and emotional, and make the parallels between their very different lives even more intriguing. This accomplished first novel is highly recommended for all readers of historical fiction.