The Marble Army: A Timely Story about the Personal Costs Incurred while Pursuing Justice
When I was in sixth grade, the student body went on strike. It was 1985 in Los Angeles, and my school had a very strict dress code—no shorts allowed without permission from the principal. Sure, when the weather was deemed hot enough, we were given approval, but those days seemed few and far between, and when you’re young and living in L.A.’s warm climate, we felt like we should decide how best to dress. So, one day the students banded together—perhaps encouraged by action-minded parents—and demanded our right. We won, and after only one day of striking. Protest can bring about change, I learned, especially if it’s organized and presents a clear message—I also assumed that this happened with very little personal sacrifice. Now, the plethora of protests across the country don’t seem as effective, but we’re trying anyway. Sadly, the mentality driving these protests is dividing our country, pitting friends against friends, family members against family members. By standing up for what is right, people are losing connections with people they care about. If the cause is just, though, the personal cost outweighs the benefits for the greater good.
Such is the message at the heart of Gisele Firmino’s The Marble Army, a tightly-rendered novel that explores the lives of a family surviving through the political coup in Brazil in the 1960s-1980s. If nothing else, this engaging story is rather timely.
The story opens in a small town anchored by a mine that has recently been opened. When the military takes control of it, Antonio, the patriarch will not bend to their rule, which gets the family shunned. Eventually, the family moves to a bigger city, and there, as the family works to reestablish itself, the oldest son, Pablo, becomes engaged politically, choosing to fight against the oppressive regime, and in so doing, he places himself and his family in danger. Luca, the younger brother, watches as his family splinters and wrestles with his own stake in the harsh world around him.
As the primary point view (among the rotating points of view that tell the story), Luca provides our emotional anchor. We align ourselves with his anxieties coming of age in the politically-turbulent environment. He also serves to question his brother’s decisions, primarily in how he tries to address his Pablo’s disappearance: was he arrested and languishing in prison or is he hiding out in order to avoid capture? To find out information about his brother’s fate, is Luca willing to join the resistance movement in case he’s hiding out? But will this put his own life in danger, and is this worth it? The story never shies from the emotional moments that matter involving Luca’s journey, even if they are uncomfortable or morally questionable.
And this is true throughout the novel, as Firmino has pared down the prose to the essential moments for all of these characters. Even though this presents an emotionally rich and satisfying immersion into character, at times her approach feels fragmented—as if we might be missing parts of the story. Yet, this is how memory can work, and given this truth, she picks key moments to render the impact of the collective decisions these characters have made—especially near the end of the novel, where we move forward in time quickly.
The real reward of working through this novel is the honest depiction of emotions. The story pulls no punches about the cost of standing up for what is right—or its toll on the individual, the family, the community.