Child of the Dark,the diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, covers the period between July 1955 and January 1, 1960, with a gap, due to editing, between 1955 and 1958. Carolina has three children: Vera (two), José Carlos (five), and João (eight). They live in a favela, or shantytown, where living spaces consist of crude huts built of cardboard and wood scraps. Her daily life consists of collecting paper and metal scraps for food money. While looking for scraps outside a football stadium, Carolina endures taunts from white patrons. Carolina often fares no better closer to home—meddlesome favela woman like Dona Rosa and Dona Silvia pick fights with Carolina’s children and try to provoke Carolina. Favelalife is full of hunger, disease, violence, and alcoholism. Carolina’s only consolation is writing and the occasional kindness of friends and strangers, such as when a man stops by the favela and gives Carolina’s daughter, Vera, one hundred cruzieros, the equivalent of what Carolina often earns in a day.

Carolina struggles to insulate her children from bad influences, but she receives several summons from the police station regarding her boys’ behavior. After a few visits there, and after a neighbor woman, Chica, levels an accusation of rape against João, Carolina briefly considers interning her children in a public shelter for their own safety and wellbeing. Carolina believes that João’s accuser is lying, but she worries that her children are in danger while the matter is being investigated. After two runaways from the shelter seek refuge in Carolina’s home, and she hears their stories of horrible abuse, she changes her mind about putting her children there, recognizing that the experience would likely turn them into criminals. The fact that the favelachanges everyone it touches is a reality that Carolina fully understands. As she observes a new resident become increasingly argumentative and desperate as they adapt to the “dog-eat-dog” mentality that rules the favela, Carolina recognizes that a person can resist being dragged down by it only for so long.

Carolina takes every opportunity she can get to participate in Brazil’s political system, but after going to Congress to observe her leaders, she feels nothing but disgust. In response to the ignorance she sees from those in power, Carolina levels many critiques against the political system that she believes contributes to the poverty and hunger of the favelados. To Carolina, Brazil’s President Juscelino is a bird in a cage, and the favela dwellers are hungry cats that may someday rise up against him if given the chance. On a more day-to-day level, Carolina senses that she lives in a system that conspires against the poor. Inflation is rampant, and prices for basic necessities, such as rice and flour, can be absurd. When Carolina watches a factory owner dump rotted food near the favela, she considers it an act of blatant cruelty. Carolina also endures racial and class discrimination every time she ventures out of the favelaand into the city of São Paulo. While taking a streetcar, Carolina discusses the politician Dr. Adhemar with other passengers, who blame him for the steep increases in the cost of transportation. Carolina thinks that Adehemar is angry and wants to punish the poor. In the often-brutal world she lives in, Carolina wonders how much worse conditions can get.

Carolina refuses to put her interest in marrying before her interest in her children, even when she is proposed to by a man named Manuel, who, compared to the other favelados, is fairly well off, a worker and abstainer from alcohol. Against her own better judgment, Carolina also becomes intertwined with a gypsy named Raimundo, who awakens in her a sense of romance and adventure. Ultimately, she decides that he is not the man she thought he was, but when he moves away, she is sick and broken-hearted. Through both entanglements, Carolina maintains that she is not the marrying type, her children come first, and she is unwilling to make the sacrifices that she sees other women making in order to get married.

The intervention of a journalist named Audalio Dantas helps Carolina to realize her dream of being published. When excerpts of her diary appear in a weekly magazine called O Cruziero,Carolina tells everyone she can about her new fame. Unfortunately, being published does not have the effect that she was hoping for. Not only do Carolina’s dire daily circumstances remain unchanged, but she quickly finds success to be a bitter pill when the favela fills with disparaging talk of her motives. Even after her publication, Carolina must deal with the same challenges and frustrations: the struggle to scrape together enough money for food, the lines at the water spigot, the fights, and the racism and sexism she faces on a daily basis. Despite these daily humiliations, Carolina holds fast to her dream of finding a home far from the favela for her family.