For Americans trying to understand Brazilian history, it may help to think of Brazil’s North as akin to the American South and the Brazilian South as resembling our North. It was in Brazil’s coastal Northeast, more than a century before Jamestown, that the Portuguese established their first permanent settlements. In colonial times a plantation-based monoculture dominated the Northeast’s economy, and chattel slavery dependent on mass importation of Africans was most deeply entrenched there. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the Brazilian version of the Great Migration sent millions of poor nonwhite sharecroppers to the industrializing cities of the South. The Northeast is also the birthplace of much of the best and most characteristic Brazilian music, folklore, and cuisine. And just as Americans acknowledge a genre called the Southern novel, so too has Brazil generated an equivalent: the Northeastern novel.

The Northeast is one of five regions into which the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics officially divides the country. It consists of nine states along the Atlantic Ocean, from Bahia at its southern end up to Maranhão, where it borders the Amazon, and it is home to more than 55 million people, just over a quarter of Brazil’s population. Historically the Northeast, more than two thirds of whose inhabitants are of African descent, has been the poorest part of the country, dominated by a small class of lighter-skinned landowners and political bosses known as “colonels” in part because of their control of state militias. Even in the first decade of this century a particularly powerful governor of Bahia, a state larger than France, was known as “the electronic colonel” because he owned the most important newspapers, radio and television stations, and websites there.

It is this system of exploitation—and the continuing violence it engenders in order to maintain itself—that has both appalled and enthralled Brazilian novelists, playwrights, poets, filmmakers, painters, and photographers in the modern era. Since the publication of José Américo de Almeida’s A Bagaceira in 1928—an English translation a half-century later had the badly chosen title Trash and is now out of print—nearly every notable Brazilian writer of fiction has at one time or another tried to confront this shameful inheritance.

My personal favorite is João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s searing stream-of-consciousness backlands tale Sergeant Getúlio (1971), but before Jorge Amado settled into a mature style that emphasized humor and folklore, he wrote a cycle of lacerating novels about the cocoa bean plantations in Bahia where he was raised, culminating in The Violent Land (1943). During the same period José Lins do Rego produced a sugarcane cycle, and Graciliano Ramos wrote his heartrending Barren Lives (1938). Clarice Lispector, who grew up in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco, also took a crack at the genre: the last novel published before her death, The Hour of the Star (1977), addresses, among other things, the abyss between the impoverished rural Northeast and the urbanized South, seen through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old peasant girl who has made her way to Rio de Janeiro. Even a handful of foreign writers have been drawn to the region’s cruel and complicated history: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World (1981), set in the backlands of Bahia during a time of rebellion at the close of the nineteenth century, is one of the most acclaimed examples of a Northeastern novel, and he is Peruvian.

Now, with Crooked Plow, Itamar Vieira Junior, like Amado a native of Bahia, has joined—and also updated—that illustrious lineage. All the features of an archetypal Northeastern novel are in the story he tells, from suffering to resistance, revenge, and redemption, but he adds new plot twists and literary devices. His main characters are all Afro-Brazilians, and when whites occasionally appear, he confines them to clearly secondary importance. Additionally, the novel’s three narrators—Vieira assigns a different one to each section—are all female, and the plot unfolds with them as protagonists in the events being recounted, not mere observers. Two are sisters, Bibiana and Belonísia, but the third is Santa Rita the Fisherwoman, a powerful encantada, or spirit, in the Afro-Brazilian religion known as Jarê. No wonder, then, that the Brazilian feminist website Valkirias exulted that Crooked Plow is “a modern-day classic without heroes, but stuffed with heroines.”

Not the kind of heroines, however, that Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, or Virginia Woolf might have imagined, but drawn instead from the invisible servant class that populates novels like theirs. “We are women of the fields,” Belonísia reflects after marrying a brutal farmhand named Tobias while still in her teens,

already battered by the sun and by drought. By arduous work and hardship, by the children we bear when we’re too young, one after the other, withering our breasts, thickening our ankles…. From childhood onward we were being prepared to produce future workers for our bosses.

On its surface, Crooked Plow is the tale of one peasant family and its neighbors over a period of several decades. Bibiana and Belonísia are daughters of Zeca Chapéu Grande (Joe Big Hat), a sharecropper, religious leader, and medical healer in the small rural community where he lives with his wife, Salustiana; two additional children, Zezé and Domingas; and his mother, Donana. All of them till the soil, but Zeca Chapéu Grande feels a special affinity and reverence for the land, which gives him access to “all the secret changes of sky and earth.” “Whenever he encountered some problem in the fields,” Belonísia recalls,


my father would lie on the ground, his ear attuned to what was deep in the earth, before deciding what tools to use and what to do, where to advance and where to retreat. Like a doctor listening to a heartbeat.

Crooked Plow’s first few pages are somewhat disorienting, and not just because of the strange trauma that initiates the story and constitutes one of its through lines. Vieira also withholds clues that would signal where and, above all, when his novel takes place. This is an astute strategy: the system of privation, toil, and subjugation the Portuguese imposed on the region and its inhabitants beginning in the sixteenth century prevailed until recent times and can still be found in a few corners of the Northeast. By refusing to immediately give readers this information, Vieira is obliquely emphasizing the stasis of that system and the timelessness of the suffering of families like those of Zeca Chapéu Grande. Are we in 1950 or 1650?

Soon, though, a few indicators appear: there is a mention of a radio and a car of a make and model only introduced on the Brazilian market in the 1960s. This was a period of enormous ferment and upheaval in the Northeast, when the Peasant Leagues, led by Francisco Julião, clashed with latifundistas, the Liberation Theology advocated by the Roman Catholic bishop Hélder Câmara flourished, and radical politicians like Miguel Arraes were being voted into power. At the same time the Brazilian government was belatedly trying to address centuries-old inequities through a newly formed Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast under the leadership of the economist Celso Furtado, and the United States, fearing “another Cuba,” was pouring USAID money and Peace Corps volunteers into the region from what was then its largest consulate in the world, in Pernambuco. All of this forms the unspoken backdrop to Crooked Plow, and all of it was, as every Brazilian reader knows, swept away in the military coup of April 1, 1964, which resulted in twenty-one years of brutal right-wing dictatorship.

The precise place where the novel unfurls is also not initially made clear, which further emphasizes the uniformity of oppression the inhabitants of the Northeast faced: it could be almost anywhere in the region’s 600,000 square miles. Only gradually, through the mention of certain rivers and then a few small towns, does Vieira reveal that the fictional settlement of Água Negra (Black Water) is located in the heart of Bahia, in a ruggedly beautiful region of mesas, caves, canyons, waterfalls, and valleys called the Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Plateau). It was given that name by the prospectors who flocked there beginning in the eighteenth century with their slaves, “digging those deep holes, with people clawing at the earth like armadillos, looking for the shining stones” that provided a first wave of riches and exploitation in the Northeastern interior.

Coastal areas of the Northeast are lush and fertile, and since the sixteenth century have produced sugar. But Água Negra and the Chapada Diamantina are part of the vast semiarid interior that Brazilians call the sertão and are subject to periodic droughts, some of them lasting years at a time. Control of water thus means power, but the descendants of slaves who populate sharecropper settlements like Água Negra, which are generically called quilombos, have neither. “A worker’s house should never be thought of as an asset, a possession that might attract the greed of heirs” to the plantation, Belonísia muses. “The house must be easy to demolish when required,” and though its inhabitants “could fence in their gardens and even plant in the floodplain in their free time,” there is a catch: “They could feed themselves from what the land provided, but only if they were obedient and loyal.”

During the first two thirds of the novel, this precarious equilibrium reigns. But things begin to go awry when the Peixotos, the absentee landlord family that has long owned the plantation, sell “the entire property, including our mud houses, including our very bodies as furniture” to Salomão and Estela, ambitious entrepreneurs with lots of newfangled ideas, such as that “Água Negra should become an ecological sanctuary.” Rather than meet with the tenants himself, Salomão dispatches his newly hired foreman to tell them they can no longer bury their dead at the plantation’s cemetery, where generations of their ancestors rest. “It was a crime against the forest, against nature,” the foreman maintains, because “the graves were too close to the riverbed,” where Salomão has “built a fancy house for his family” and also decreed the river to be off-limits to fishing. Naturally, the sharecroppers are shocked and angered, and they reject his “damn-fool talk of prohibitions. It was their destiny to be buried in that ground.”


Around the same time, after several years away, Bibiana returns to the plantation with her husband, Severo, who has joined a farmworkers union and undergone a training course for activists. The Peixoto family and the mayor had grudgingly allowed construction of a primary school, and Bibiana goes to work there as a teacher, to her parents’ satisfaction. But Severo’s activities are not as well received by the community. Many of the older folk fear that upsetting the established order will only make their lives worse, and even Zeca Chapéu Grande has reservations about his son-in-law’s approach. In a place that once seemed impervious to change, a generation gap has suddenly emerged.

“You could say my father was in fact complicit in his own exploitation,” Bibiana realizes. “As the spiritual leader of the community, it was he who made sure the work continued without disruption, keeping the peace among the tenant farmers.” For his part, “Severo understood he couldn’t argue with my father,” Belonísia observes, because “it would’ve shown a lack of respect for everything my father represented to our community.” So for as long as Zeca Chapéu Grande was alive, “Severo would defer to him, holding back rather than confronting those who’d given us shelter. Questioning their authority would be a form of ingratitude.”

Vieira has an equally insightful sense of other hierarchies and aspects of social dynamics, based on sex, skin color, and length of tenancy, that exist even among the oppressed. The Peixoto family exploits their plantation manager, Sutério, who in turn abuses the power he has over the tenant farmers. One of the most emblematic scenes in the novel occurs when Sutério, “having invited himself” into Zeca Chapéu Grande’s hut, seizes sweet potatoes and bottles of palm oil piled on a table. “I could see the shame on my father’s face as he stood there, unable to stop what was happening,” Bibiana observes.

I saw my mother make a slight movement, her eyes burning with indignation, but she held herself back when she understood that my father was going to just stand there, without protest or complaint.

Frustrated and feeling emasculated by the humiliations they are forced to endure, many of the men—though not Zeca Chapéu Grande—take out their resentment on their wives and children. Belonísia’s hardworking husband is no exception:

Tobias arrived home later, dripping sweat, his eyes bloodshot. I could tell from a distance he’d been drinking. He hitched his horse with some difficulty, then stumbled into the house…. He began bellowing insults about everyone: our neighbors, Sutério, the Peixoto family.

All of these pressures, collective and individual, continue to accumulate, setting the stage for the novel’s dramatic final section, “River of Blood.”

Though not himself a native of the closed, rural world he is writing about, Vieira knows it with the intimacy that comes from prolonged contact. Born in 1979 in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, he spent his adolescence in Pernambuco and Maranhão. After winning a scholarship for low-income Black youth, he returned to Bahia to study geography at the federal university in Salvador; he then went on to earn a doctorate in ethnic and African studies at the same university, writing his thesis on the formation of quilombos. Armed with that expertise, he has spent most of his working life as a geographer for the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), interviewing residents of quilombos and evaluating their claims to ownership of land they have long cultivated for others. In fact, it was only early in 2023 that he finally took a leave of absence from his job, so that he could go on reading tours in Germany, Japan, and other countries where his book has met with critical and commercial success.

That experience, combined with Vieira’s intensely observant eye, gives Crooked Plow a powerful aura of authenticity. His characters’ daily customs, rites, and routines are described in vivid, sympathetic detail, as are the parched fields where the peasants barely eke out a living. And though Crooked Plow is a novel awash in politics, Vieira does not neglect the syncretic Afro-Brazilian religions, outlawed until well into the twentieth century, that have traditionally held quilombo communities together. Those faiths, central to his story, are treated with respect, not as exotica: traditionally, some on the Brazilian left have regarded them as an unfortunate impediment to political mobilization, but not Vieira. As he has explained in interviews in Brazil, behind the house in which he grew up in Salvador, a city sometimes called “the Black Rome” because of its spiritual importance, was a terreiro de candomblé—a house of worship for perhaps the most important of the spirit-possessing religions.

Originally issued in Portugal in 2018, where it won a €100,000 prize for the best unpublished novel in Portuguese, and then a year later in Brazil, Crooked Plow, Vieira’s first novel after two collections of short stories, achieved extraordinary critical and commercial success more quickly than any Brazilian book in recent years. It has sold more than 900,000 copies in Brazil, won the country’s top literary prize, has been translated into more than twenty languages, and is being made into an HBO Max series projected, according to press reports, to run at least three seasons.

In interviews in Brazil, Vieira has said that Crooked Plow is the first part of what he envisions as a trilogy. A second volume, Salvar o Fogo (Save the Fire), was published in Brazil last year, and features some of the same characters in different circumstances: instead of the parched interior, their struggle for survival takes place on the fertile lands surrounding the Bay of All Saints, where their adversary is no longer a greedy landlord but a Roman Catholic monastery. The outline of the concluding, still-untitled third novel can already be discerned, for there are several repeatedly mentioned characters who have yet to appear and plot points that need to be resolved.

Johnny Lorenz’s admirably fluid translation enhances the many strengths that Vieira demonstrates as a writer. Lorenz, a Brazilian-American professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey who has also translated some of Clarice Lispector’s work, is especially adept at rendering dialogue in a way that sounds absolutely natural. This is a novel that requires a translator able to capture the unusual cadences and economy of Brazilian peasant speech—one proverb in the Northeast states that “for the truly wise, half a word suffices,” and another advises that it is “better to remain silent than misspeak”—and Lorenz is equal to the challenge of making it read as gracefully in English as in Portuguese.

Vieira’s detailed descriptions of “the blasted landscape of unending drought” and its beleaguered inhabitants often have a bleak beauty, and Lorenz skillfully captures that, too, as in this snapshot of the family home:

The mud had begun to erode, exposing the wood lattice that supported the front wall. It was like a decomposing body, allowing everyone to see its bones, to see a house’s intimate spaces, for the holes and cracks were now gaping. To look into the interior of a house was to see all we possessed, secrets that should never be revealed, secrets fundamental to who we were.

One of the first things the new Brazilian government did after the military dictatorship fell in 1985 was to declare much of the Chapada Diamantina a national park. Today it is a fashionable tourist attraction for both Brazilians and foreigners, filled with ecolodges of the sort Vieira mocks, and there are even Quilombo Heritage Private Tours, during which visitors can refine palm oil, walk through fields of sugarcane, and meet traditional healers. Jimmy Page, the founder and lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, for many years owned a house in the region, which he has described as his “spiritual refuge.” For people who once toiled in virtual vassalage, the region’s newfound popularity has created lots of service jobs as guides and in restaurants, hotels, and shops. But echoes of the past remain: the region is now richer, so possession of land and water is more valuable than ever and thus worth fighting harder for, and an unintended effect of the popularity of Vieira’s novel has been to accelerate interest in visiting the area, further straining an inadequate infrastructure.

In May 2023, a month before Crooked Plow was published in the United States, INCRA, the agency that employed Vieira, finally issued a certificate recognizing the collective land-ownership rights of thirty-nine families living in Iúna, a marshland community rich in biodiversity on the outskirts of the Chapada Diamantina, after decades of legal wrangling and threats of eviction. But there is still much work to do: by INCRA’s own count, an additional 977 proceedings in the Northeast remain unresolved, and violence continues throughout the region. In August Mother Bernadette, coordinator of the national federation of quilombos and a candomblé priestess, was shot to death in her home outside Salvador. So Vieira’s novel is anything but a period piece; it reads, as the Hollywood trailers used to say, almost as if it were “ripped from today’s headlines.”

I worry that what I have written here may make Crooked Plow sound like some kind of agitprop for Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, a modern-day successor to the Peasant Leagues of the 1960s. But it is not. It is extraordinarily well written, offers a window into the interior lives of a class of people rarely considered outside of academic studies, and is suffused with tenderness and compassion for its characters and their plight. As I write this, I am immersed in Salvar o Fogo, and I can hardly wait for the finale of Vieira’s trilogy. Crooked Plow is that good.