________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 20 . . . . June 10, 2005


From Another World.

Ana Maria Machado. Translated by Luisa Baeta. Illustrated by Lúcia Brandâo.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 2005.
136 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-641-1 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-597-0 (cl.).

Subject Heading:
Slavery-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Karen Rankin.

**1/2 /4


The girl neither moved nor spoke. She stared. She might even have been shaking a little. I must confess I was a little bit scared myself. Not too scared though, because I thought I didn't believe in ghosts. And because I knew I wasn't alone. My friends were with me, and there were other people sleeping nearby, behind the doors along that same corridor. But looking at that strange girl standing there, completely transparent, and being able to see the door behind her, even in the faint candlelight, would scare anyone. I think the reason why I wasn't more afraid is because the girl wasn't at all threatening. On the contrary, I thought she seemed terrified, a lot more so than the four of us put together. Elisa must have felt the same because she said, "Don't be afraid. Nobody is going to hurt you." The girl nodded. Then Elisa introduced everyone as if she were at a party.

The story of Rosario, a young female slave who lived in nineteenth century Brazil, is told by Mariano, a teenaged boy living in contemporary Brazil. Mariano explains at the beginning of the book that he was chosen to write the story "from a past century, from another life. Or from another world. Who knows?" When Mariano's mother decides to help her friend, Vera, open up an inn, Mariano, Vera's two children, Leo and Elisa, and another girl (who are all friends already) get involved in the renovations of Vera's farm. The old buildings were once part of a vast coffee plantation. When a "shed" is turned into new guest rooms, the children are allowed to spend a number of nights camping out in the nearly completed building. That's when they first encounter the ghost of Rosario, a former slave of the plantation's cruel owner. During the next week, Mariano and his friends spend some time doing research at the library, on the Internet, and asking Vera's mother (Leo and Elisa's grandmother) questions, to find out more about ghostly manifestations and the farm's history. They conclude that Rosario has made herself known to them because her spirit cannot rest in peace. Over the course of a couple more nights, the children hear Rosario's horrific tale. Before Rosario tells them of her "hellish" death in the very building they've been camping in, she tells them a little about her life and her younger brother. She explains the part they played (with the help of some "free" children and their father) in other slaves' escapes, as well as the implications of some of the slavery laws around the time that slavery was abolished in Brazil. Finally, Rosario asks the children to find out what happened to her little brother, and she makes Mariano promise to write down her tale so that history will not be repeated. Speaking with Leo and Elisa's grandmother, the children learn that Rosario's brother was the old woman's grandfather. After escaping, he eventually ended up inheriting the farm (which had dwindled considerably in size) from the cruel owner's kind daughter. Mariano's story ends with him naming the inn and inviting the reader to "come and visit us. Free Wood Inn. It's small, but lovely. Now guaranteed to be ghost-free. I am sure you'll like it." The final four pages of the book include a brief history of how the Portuguese became involved with Brazil during the 1800s and a glossary.

     This reader got goose-bumps when Ana Maria Machado, the Brazilian author of From Another World, first introduced the ghost, Rosario. Rosario's story is fascinating and could have made for riveting reading. However, the novel tends to drag. There are two main reasons for this: Mariano's narrative and the amount of information packed into the story. The book gets off to a slow start with Mariano's telling the reader about his parents, his three friends, and the farm that is to be turned into an inn. The impatient young reader will have a difficult time getting to the "juicy" stuff, that being when Rosario first appears. Throughout, Mariano's writing style and commentary slow the action and significantly limit the tension. For instance, the story of Rosario's murder by the plantation owner in a fit of rage is interrupted by Mariano:

He [the plantation owner] shouted that no one could do such a thing to him; that the government didn't have the right; that they couldn't put an end to his legacy just like that; that he had spent many years putting this all together, helping to produce the county's wealth; that he had paid a high price and wasn't going to lose it all without at least getting paid back. I think that if it had happened these days, he would probably have brought up his "property rights" as we see in newspapers every time some group wants to maintain its privileges. That's just my comment. I'm sorry, I shouldn't be giving opinions. It's just that I'm trying to put off telling what happened next. The things I don't want to tell, which I promised to tell, which can hardly be told.

The slaves, locked in the dark inside the senzala, heard the following order.

"Spread the oil!"

     Neither Rosario's nor the narrator's voice comes across strongly. Rosario's voice is too brief, and Mariano's, though genial, is not particularly convincing. Consequently, the reader does not feel much attachment to either (or any) character in From Another World.

     On the other hand, timid readers put off by Rosario's brutal tale will be relieved by Mariano's interruptions which make the severe parts of the story bearable. More importantly, presented with so many of Mariano's opinions and observations, young readers will probably come away from the story with an increased awareness about a number of issues, including slavery and racism.

I can't speak for my friends, but as I listened I felt so ashamed of being white and Brazilian. I had studied slavery in school, so what Rosario was saying wasn't exactly new. But it made me so mad, I couldn't even speak. How can someone handle that, being so angry about something and not being able to do anything? It was horrible to think about, impossible to imagine anything more terrible, unless you compared it to the stuff we saw in movies about what happened in the concentration camps during the Second World War. To think that human beings, people like us, could be so cruel. It was unbearable.

     Furthermore, for the more determined reader, Ana Maria Machado's numerous bits of information on topics ranging from traditional Brazilian food and building materials, to the Brazil-inspired paintings of Rugendas and Debret, to current-day slavery, to the Jewish holocaust are interesting and informative. Her brief description of contemporary life in Brazil would also be of interest to North American readers. Following is an example of Machado's informative narrative:

"Yes. My last name is Silva. Once I mentioned to father that it was such a common name. He said that in the olden days, when they didn't know someone's family name, they often registered the child as "da Silva," which means "from the jungle" or "from the woods." Or they used "Santos," which means saints, or "Nascimento," which means birth. It was a way of saying that there was no family before, it started with this birth, or that it was up to the saints."

"Wow, that's interesting!" said Elisa. "I never heard that before. What I know is that when the Jews were persecuted in Portugal and had to convert so that they wouldn't be arrested, they changed their names to sound Christian. They adopted last names from trees they had in their backyards or from animals they liked or admired."

     From Another World feels like a book with a mission: to impart a little history and raise awareness. It makes for a rather teach-y (at times, preach-y) read. But, as a starting point for discussion and/or further research, From Another World is loaded with possibilities.


Karen Rankin is a Toronto writer and editor of children's stories.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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