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A vivid portrait of a South American heroine

Our Lives Are the Rivers, By Jaime Manrique, Rayo, 368 pp, $24.95

The early to mid-1800s were a bloody and brutal time in South America, as Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela struggled for independence from Spain. Author Jaime Manrique focuses on that period in ''Our Lives Are the Rivers," viewing history through the eyes of one of South America's biggest heroines, Manuela Sáenz.

Beautiful, brash, impulsive, and passionate, Sáenz was a spy for the revolutionaries and the mistress of their leader, Venezuela-born General Simón Bolìvar. The novel is told from her point of view and those of her loyal slaves, Jonotás and Natán.

Sáenz was the illegitimate daughter of a married, aristocratic Spaniard and a naive Ecuadoran girl from a well-to-do family. Her mother died when she was a child, and Sáenz was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who considered her birth a stain on their family's reputation. She is shipped off to a convent at the age of 7, where she befriends Rosita, the only other ''illegitimate girl" studying there.

Ostracized by students and nuns alike, the two girls bond over idealistic notions of romance and revolution. ''We both dreamed of the day when South America would become free of its Spanish chains," Sáenz says. Of all of the rebels, General Bolìvar, ''The Liberator," is her idol.

Though Simon Sáenz eventually acknowledges her as his daughter, easing her entrance into society, Manuela Sáenz is embittered by the years spent shamed by his silence and vows to find a way to lead an independent life, in spite of having been born a woman. Her dream is sidetracked when, at the age of 20, her father arranges for her to marry an Englishman named James Thorne.

Feeling trapped and resentful, she moves with Thorne to Lima, Peru, where she is embraced by the aristocracy. She reconnects with Rosita, who is now a lady in waiting in the court of the Spanish Viceroy and the lover of revolutionary leader José de San Martìn. Unlike Sáenz, Rosita has not strayed from their childhood desire to fight for freedom, and she persuades Sáenz to abandon her position as one of the richest women in the country and become a spy against the Spanish regime.

Sáenz's work aiding the rebels eventually leads to the liberation of Peru from Spain, and she is awarded the Order of the Knight of the Sun. When she returns to Ecuador a few years later, she meets Bolìvar, her childhood hero, starting a public romance that lasts for the rest of Bolìvar's life. She embraces the cause as well as the man, eventually becoming a colonel in Bolìvar's army and fighting alongside his soldiers in the Andes while continuing to gather intelligence for the revolutionaries. Exiled from Colombia after Bolìvar's death in 1830, and exiled from Ecuador after she tried to claim her family's estate there, she spent her last days, crippled and destitute, in the run-down fishing port of Paita, Peru.

The book touches on the hypocrisy of fighting for independence for the white descendents of Europeans in South America, called criollos, while continuing to enslave people of African and Indian descent. ''When he spoke about the 'chains of slavery,' [Bolìvar] was thinking mostly of how the criollos felt enslaved by the Spaniards," Natán points out. ''The slavery of the Indians or the Africans was not his main concern." And, in spite of her crusade against the Spanish crown, Sáenz admires and longs for power and prestige, claiming to be ''one of the people" while insisting that she be treated like ''The First Lady of Colombia." ''I had to make my role clear to the people of Bogota," she says.

One of the most powerful women in South American history, Manuela Sáenz was a controversial figure, a cigar-smoking, independent patriot. Manipulative, arrogant, and prone to impassioned, often thoughtless, actions, her character is, at times, difficult to like. But when you remember that Sáenz was a real person, it's easy to admire her, faults and all, and even cheer her on.

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