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Book Review: Child of the Dark
This book review is based on a on a research paper I composed for a Brazilian history class I took in the spring of 1999. I believe this book review will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about Brazilian history in general, and those who want to know about social issues and poverty in this country. Yes, Carolina Maria de Jesus' memoir is actually a diary she kept while living in a favela, but for all intent purposes, it can be considered her memoirs.
Carolina Maria de Jesus' memoir Child of the Dark, is the most thought-provoking book I have read in awhile. Although there are many other books dealing with suffering and social injustices, the reader is immediately confronted with the reality that Carolina wrote this book from her day to day experiences with poverty. Unlike a scholarly book or journal article that is detached from the nitty-gritty of living in abject squalor, Carolina delves into this with vivid detail, which will create a few visceral reactions. The harsh circumstances of life in the favela make the reader truly appreciate the struggles Carolina and her children had to endure living in this environment. However, we must also be discerning of the bias from which Carolina tells this story to compare how it matches the experiences of other people who have lived in favelas. Nevertheless, Carolina's work serves as a useful piece from which to gauge the experience of the favelas that were largely ignored by the Brazilian government around the time this diary was written, which was sometime in the 1950s. Also, this was before the time when the Catholic Church and other organizations began more humanitarian work and aid in the favelas.
Carolina and other favela dwellers were so caught up in the struggle to survive that they did not have time to resist against social justices imposed on them. In class it was pointed out that one historian had done research in the favelas, and his findings indicated that these communities did not have political agency, and were not really able to present their fight for social justice to the government before the 1960s. This historian also notes that the favelas had a strong sense of community groups that were dedicated to helping those within the favela, to the best of their abilities. However, upon reading Carolina's memoirs, one finds that the picture that is emerges is everything to the contrary of neighbors helping one another. The people in Carolina's community were always bickering with each other, and the women in the favela shunned her. The neighbors would verbally intimidate Carolina's children and throw rocks at them. The situation often became so tense that Carolina was forced to take her children with her when she went out to look for paper. Despite all the chaos in her neighborhood, Carolina feels she is above the other women, and that this is one of the reasons they resent her. Carolina refuses to go to the church and beg for bread, so she takes to the street looking for paper and scrap metal that she can turn in for cash.
On the days that Carolina cannot make enough money, she resorts to digging through the trash in order to find food. Carolina detests the lewd and lascivious behavior of her neighbors, some of who spend their days in engaged in consuming booze, drugs, and frequenting prostitutes. In class we learned about how some favela communities were so cohesive that if the government relocated the residents to a housing track that within a matter of days they would move back to their favela. Even though the middle classes could not understand the desire of these people to move back to the squalor of these residences, the favelados insisted that it was the only home they had ever known, and thus the only place they wanted to be. Carolina, on the other hand, constantly complains about how she thinks the favelas should be torn down, and how she is going to escape once she can make enough money by selling her book. The picture that comes across from Carolina's testimony stands in stark contrast the research about the favelados who yearned for their communities when forced to move away. Which one is the correct way of viewing life in these slums? It all depends on how your look at things, but Carolina did not enjoy favela living at all.
Another issue that was addressed in lecture was regarding the political agency of the favela dweller to redress their social and economic injustices before the state. One historian did research in the legal archives and found that favelados had political representatives who were able to get the state to provide amenities, such as electricity and water to the communities. This historian interpreted the testimony to mean the favelados did have a degree of political agency. However, upon reading Carolina's memoirs, one see that these so-called political representatives stood to gain personally by bringing electricity to the community, so they could then make a profit by charging the residents higher rates for these amenities. Carolina's diary illustrates that only an insider can see certain things the rest of us could never understood, unless we had lived under these conditions.
One of the subjects I found most compelling about the memoir was the favelados sense of alienation with the politicians. Carolina points out that the politicians would come around election time promising to make reforms for the favela dwellers. One thing that sticks out vividly is the statement that Carolina made about how the politicians would even drink out of their cups and acted like there were at home among the favelados. However, once these officials were elected, they would forget about the favelados until the next election cycle. Politicians were simply interested in winning their votes and not in bringing political reforms to the favelas. Carolina's disillusion with the system is further illustrated by the bureaucratic system giving the run around when she is trying to obtain better medical care for her family. Carolina is treated like a troublemaker and escorted off the premises at one government office for simply asking what she needs to do about obtaining the medical coverage she needs for her family. So although Carolina's life is consumed with the search for paper to buy food, she still does what she can to fight social injustice in her life. Thus, her simple question about what she had to do in order to obtain better medical coverage was in itself a form of resistance.
Before reading Carolina's diary I had never realized that the favelado communities existed in Brazil. All I really knew about Brazil were a few things we witnesses about Carnival on television. I also had a roommate from Brazil, but she came from a privileged background and never talked about the poverty in her country. She actually talked about how much better Brazilian barbeques were than American ones, so reading this book was the first glimpse I had into abject poverty in Brazil. Carolina's memoirs really opened my eyes to the disparaging gap that existed between the wealthy in Brazil, and masses who control very little of the resources. Although there are vast discrepancies between the research presented by historians in lecture and Carolina's experience in her diary, we can come to a fuller understanding of this time and place by comparing these sources. I highly recommend the book Child in the Dark for anyone who wants to know more about life in the favelas of 1950's Brazil.