In the early 17th century, two hauntingly plague-orphaned Portuguese siblings flee their village for Lisbon, only to encounter more vicissitudes before reaching a safer haven in Brazil.
Manu and Bento exhibit strong loyalty to each other, and they adhere faithfully to their Roman Catholic upbringing. For most of the story, 11-year-old Manu, a girl, poses as a boy for safety’s sake, a device that both furthers the plot and may help readers believe the siblings’ feminist, anti-racist and anti-slavery values that, however sympathetic, seem more in sync with 21st-century progressive values than those of their own time. The third-person narrative is mostly told from Manu’s point of view, but it also follows captured Africans—in grim, realistic detail—to their eventual relationships with Manu and Bento. When Bento falls in love with the African slave Rosa, and Manu befriends both the African slave Didi and the indigenous boy Caiubi, the siblings learn about quilombos—settlements of runaway slaves—and put their abolitionist values into action. In Springer’s translation, Machado’s story is sometimes hindered by stilted, patronizing or sentimental passages. Didactic interludes provide contextual information about such complex subjects as Portuguese/Brazilian history and the trans-Atlantic slave trade; these are augmented by a helpful editorial note and glossary.
Despite awkward moments, the tale offers vivid descriptions, an intriguing plot and a setting not often seen in North American literature for children. (Historical fiction. 10-13)