To be part of Lampião’s gang of bandits, who roamed the backlands of Brazil between 1922 and 1938, was to be an important part of the fabric of life in this arid but beautiful land known as the Sertão. The words of one of his marching songs, “You teach me to make lace and I’ll teach you to make love,” provide insight into the folkloric popularity of both Lampião and his woman (the renowned beauty, Maria Bonita). Born Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, Lampião was 21 years old when his father was murdered. Denied justice by the local judge, he left his family’s ranch and embraced the life of banditry, succeeding so well that he soon gained notoriety as the “Bandit King.” Lampião could be both cruel and compassionate. His arrival in any village would usually herald the death of a few and the enrichment of many.
This powerful novel, written in a voice that draws one deep into Lampião’s world, tells not only the story of the King and Queen of the Bandits but also of the land and the people (both of whom are characters in their own right). The main thread follows the life-and-death struggle between the bandits and the police, but this combat is superbly set in relief against the backdrop of the constant battle for survival in a land dominated by cycles of rain and drought.
There is a third conflict woven subtly into the story that brings the writing to the level of genius, and that is the fight to hold on to a beloved culture in the face of the relentless pressure to join the modern world. When Lampião and Maria Bonita meet their inevitable fate, the author brilliantly portrays their deaths as markers of the end an era. Highly recommended.