Married at fifteen, “in loneliness and lust,” as she herself puts it, Isabel Keating kills her abusive husband six years later and is forced to flee 18th century Ireland disguised as a man. She boards the Bonaventure, a ship bound for America, only to discover once she is on the high seas that thanks to her ignorance of geography and the captain’s greed, she is not on her way north to Boston, as she had intended, but south to the Spanish colonies.
Thanks to the ship’s owner, Garzón Moreau, who is also on board, she learns of the perils and rewards of continuing south to the small coastal city of Montevideo and uses her small stock of money to invest in Garzon’s export ventures. Like Isabel, he, too, is something of an outcast, albeit a wealthy one, thanks to his ability at evading the Spanish Crown’s import and export regulations and to his skills as a smuggler. They both have strong reasons to resist a relationship that goes any deeper. Garzon is half Indian and well aware that the Catholic Church forbids mixed marriages. And Isabel is a fugitive with a troubling secret.
They join forces with an unconventional priest whose determination to save the native people from slavery impels him to leave the safety of his mission near Montevideo to establish a new one inland, on territory controlled by Garzón. Built on the shifting sands of personal and political power struggles, this partnership provides them with freedom from close scrutiny from the Crown and the Church, while forcing them and the Indians who join them on their new venture to make choices that will affect not only their own lives, but the future of the Spanish colony itself.
The Spanish version of River of Painted Birds (Río de los Pájaros Pintados) is now available.
What People Are Saying About River of Painted Birds
Tessa Bridal’s River of Painted Birds is a great historical novel. She has traveled to Ireland, Paraguay, and her native Uruguay in order to accurately describe the settings of her novel. Her research on the relations between the Jesuits and the Indians is impeccable. Words like “magical, luminous, vivid, and unforgettable” have been used to describe her writing. These are true descriptions. But there is more. Bridal’s book inspires, educates, engrosses, and captivates the reader. Her book is one of those remarkable epics of literature that we read avidly. We want to know the ending. We don’t want the book to end. Highly recommended! ―Professor Emerita Carol Urness, University of Minnesota
River of Painted Birds is at once an adventure story and a love story, as the spirited Isabel disguises herself as a boy and flees Ireland to find herself landed (by mistake!) in what is now Uruguay. As Isabel’s eyes open to her new surroundings, our eyes open to an intriguing history of competing eighteenth-century empires and clashing cultures. This is great reading for history and fiction lovers alike. ―Suzanne Lebsock, PhD, Board of Governors Professor of History Emerita, Rutgers University
Spun as delicately as gossamer, River of Painted Birds reveals the frailties and strengths of people as strands caught within the mid-18th century web for power, wealth and godliness. Tessa Bridal’s intimate narrative brings us into real time as Spain and Portugal, England and France, Catholics and Jesuits maneuver and manipulate for precedence into the reaches of South America. Centered within Montevideo, River of Painted Birds presents a necessary and penetrating wisp of history as memoir and legend, mysticism and parable. It enters our cognizance as a last stand for human dignity in a world rushing toward physical conquest, and the annihilation of spiritual justice. ―Rita Kohn, author, playwright, and writer and producer of Public Television documentaries
We are made part of this historical novel about Ireland and the Jesuit Missions of South America, the result of a profound investigation into the characteristics of the 18th century, and taking place in the city of Montevideo. This masterful description of native flora and fauna, and the fusion between human beings and nature awakens in one a feeling of sublime spirituality. ―Lucía Todone, Professor of Biology, Curator of the Department of Zoology at the Natural History Museum “Carlos A. Torres de la Llosa”
The colorful detail, the fluidity with which the story develops from Ireland to the Rio de la Plata where Isabel flowers as a woman determined to face her new world, the description and revaluation of indigenous cultures, with their deep respect for mother earth, reaches the soul. Tessa Bridal has managed to narrate, in exquisite detail, the history of the European conquest of our lands from a rarely heard perspective.
Recommended for: Teachers interested in sharing with their students different cultural perspectives not traditionally represented in history books. Teachers interested in exploring South American literature with their students. Teachers in Spanish immersion programs. ―María Alicia Arabbo, Assistant Director, Office of Multilingual Learning, Saint Paul Public Schools