Early in his extraordinary new book, John French recounts how in 1960 a then-teenaged Luiz Inácio da Silva gained admission to the prestigious training program that would set him on an unlikely path to become president of Brazil. It began when his mother, Dona Lindu, determined for her youngest child to become a torneiro mecânico—a metalworker, a member of the emerging labor elite. Like most northeastern migrants who made their way to the rapidly industrializing fray of 1950s and 1960s São Paulo, Dona Lindu was poor, illiterate, and bold, twice uprooting her family with little but risk in hand: first in trekking south, eight children in tow, to a world in flux, then in leaving her abusive husband to seize opportunities in a city undergoing an urban explosion. So she walked long miles and waited longer hours in search of a spot at the program where her...

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