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Amazons Amazons

A Love Story

Ellen Levy

Narrated by Melissa Reizian Frank

Available from Audible

Book published by University of Missouri Press

When E.J. Levy arrived in northern Brazil on a fellowship from Yale at the age of 21, she was hoping to help save the Amazon rain forest; she didn’t realize she would soon have to save herself.

Amazons: A Love Story recounts an idealistic young woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of the magnificent rain forest and exotic city of Salvador. This elegant and sharp-eyed memoir explores the interaction of the many forces fueling deforestation—examining the ecological, economic, social, and spiritual costs of ill-conceived development—with the myriad ones that shape young women’s maturation.

Sent to Salvador (often called the “soul of Brazil” for its rich Afro-Brazilian culture), a city far from the rain forest, Levy befriends two young Brazilians, Nel, a brilliant economics student who is estranged from her family for mysterious reasons, and Isa, a gorgeous gold digger. When the university closes due to a strike, none of them can guess what will come of their ambitions. Levy’s course of study changes: she takes up capoeira, enters cooking school (making foods praised in Brazilian literature as almost magical elixirs), gains fluency in Portuguese and the ways of street life, and learns other, more painful lessons—she is raped, and her best friend becomes a prostitute.

When Levy finally reaches the Amazon, her courage—and her safety—are further tested: on a barefoot hike through the jungle one night to collect tadpoles, she encounters fist-sized spiders, swimming snakes, and crocodiles. When allergies to the antimalarial drugs meant to protect her prove life-threatening, she discovers that sometimes the greatest threat we face is ourselves. Eventually, her work as a “cartographer of loss,” charting deforestation, leads her to realize that our relationships to nature and to our bodies are linked, that we must transcend the logic of commodification if we are to save both wilderness and ourselves.

The Amazon is a perennially fascinating subject, alluring and frightening, a site of cultural projection and commercial ambition, of fantasies and violence. Amazons offers an intimate look at urgent global issues that affect us all, including the too-often abstract question of rain forest loss. Levy illuminates the burgeoning sex-tourism trade in Brazil, renewed environmental threats, global warming, and the consequences of putting a price on nature. Accounts of the region have most often been by and about men, but Amazons offers a fresh approach, interweaving a personal feminist narrative with an urgent ecological one. In the tradition of Terry Tempest Williams, this timely, compelling, and eloquent memoir will appeal to those interested in literary nonfiction, travel writing, and women’s and environmental issues.

Ellen Levy is Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri–Columbia and the editor of Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, winner of the Lambda Literary Award.


“Told in an elegant voice and with a sharp eye for detail, Amazons becomes not only a story of environmental responsibility but of compassion between two people, of what challenges and sustains us, and the obligation we have to the human heart. Levy is a genuine talent, a unique and powerful voice, with a gift for the sort of close and subtle observation of the world and its people that characterizes great literature.”

—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and Break the Skin

“One of the best new nonfiction writers in the country.”

—Bill Roorbach, author of Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays And Life into Literature

“Describing 20,000 rising geese as ‘a river of white wings,’ EJ Levy writes that she longs for a single word for ‘the wonder this world is.’ It would take more than a word, more than a few sentences, to convey the wonder this book is. On one level, it is the tale of a young girl’s quest for her own identity entwined with her determination to save the Brazilian rain forest, the paradoxical story of sensual beauty and arid dislocation—from home, loved ones, and self. But Levy’s intelligent probing and artful sentence-making transform this work from one woman’s story into a relentless examination of more universal losses—both personal and environmental—and of the elusive hope that saving imperiled places might also constitute saving ourselves.”

—Barbara Hurd, author of Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination

Amazons is a book to admire not least for its remarkable, betimes terrifying insight into the crooked creature we are—a book rendered with the passion and gifts of a poet.”

—Lee K. Abbott, author of l Things, All at Once: New and Selected Stories

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