River of Dreams, by Gay Courter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 555 pp. $ 16.95.
''Nothing in Brazil is as it first seems,'' a friend warns Margaret Claiborne , the beautiful blond heroine of this historical novel, when she arrives in Rio de Janeiro in 1895.
Author Gay Courter skillfully uses a true, though little-known, historical incident - the immigration of Confederate Americans to South America after their defeat in the Civil War - as the springboard for her story.
As Margaret's tale unfolds, she discovers that almost nothing in her life turns out to be as it first seems.
Her parents have allowed her to remain in New Orleans for nine years after their move to South America so she can study piano. Her teacher, Mlle. Doradou, had persuaded the Claibornes, who were Protestants, to allow Margaret to live and study in a convent school. When her parents summon her to Brazil, Margaret realizes that a music career really isn't part of their plans for her.
She is introduced to Brazilian life by her schoolmate Francisca Larson, the only daughter of a wealthy Swedish immigrant who has married a member of an old Brazilian family of Portuguese descent. It is Francisca who warns Margaret that appearances can be deceiving.
Arriving at the Confederate plantation community called Lizzieland, she immediately finds Francisca's warning confirmed. Life there is not as her parents had led her to believe. The Claibornes and others had wanted to re-create their Southern way of life in Brazil, but their hopes were dashed just two years after their arrival, when slavery was abolished in that country.
It soon becomes clear that Margaret's father expects her to marry a member of the Confederate community. Pragmatically she chooses the only man who owns a piano. She is saved from that loveless union, however, by an invitation to Francisca's wedding in Rio. There Margaret falls in love with Francisca's handsome older brother, Erik. They marry, and she resumes her musical career with Erik's approval and the help of Joaquim Freire, a celebrated Brazilian composer who has also fallen in love with her.
As Margaret's life flows on, she attempts to reconcile her North American, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Southern upbringing with her new life in a Latin American, Roman Catholic, macho culture. Eventually she converts to Roman Catholicism and find her views on race and color changing.
What she cannot tolerate, however, are the Brazilian attitudes toward morality, marriage, and women. Margaret deplores a double standard that encourages male infidelity but keeps women behind the high walls of their homes, that accepts Erik's mistress and their three illegitimate children, that punishes Francisca but not her attackers for a rape, and that allows Francisca's husband to abuse her, take her children from her, and incarcerate her in a mental institution.
Despite this double standard, however, Margaret is allowed to pursue her music career, which provides real and lasting happiness. By the end of the novel in 1927, she has won fame as a pianist.
''River of Dreams'' has the tragedy, adventure, romance, and happy ending one can expect in the historical-novel genre. But it is also intelligently written and as informative as it is entertaining. Gay Courter's sensitive way with her material, combined with her good writing and vivid details of life in Brazil, where she has traveled, make ''River of Dreams'' a pleasant surprise for readers expecting just another historical novel.