Friday, August 6, 2010

Tales of Cuba: Refuge and Revolution (FAMILY magazine reviews)

Within the last century, escaping children have become refugees to and from Cuba. And although desperation, confusion and isolation are far more universal than we may be willing to admit, these books are also powerful stories of family, home, and freedom. Are you taking a trip? On vacation? Or simply ready for riveting reading? Try these titles.

90 Miles to Havana
by Enrique Flores-Galbis.
Roaring Brook, $17.99, Ages 9+

Novelist Flores-Galbis offers readers a mesmerizing piece of history in this growing up story of one young boy, evacuated with his older brothers from 1960’s Cuba to Miami as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Among more than fourteen thousand young people who were part of the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere, the author taps his own experience, capturing the urgent immediacy of both betrayal and kindness, in this first-person narrative.
Beginning with a traditional New Year’s Eve family fishing trip that blends both the comfort of the familiar and introduces the approaching changes associated with the revolution, in the following days Julian watches as neighbors and friends leave the country for Miami and safety. He notes the mix of sadness and determination as parents send their children to a strange country alone.
When later he and his brothers are among those leaving without parents, the danger and brokenness are clearly shown in a multitude of word images, and represented by a broken plate Julian promises to mend. Their arrival at a camp on the outskirts of Miami is accompanied by an immediate dunking in the pool, and a meeting with a bully the brothers recognize. The most helpful encounter is the discovery of their good friends from next door in Cuba.
The brothers are assigned to sleep in the bathroom, and to kitchen duty, where Julian begins slowly to trust the camp cook, who although she must protect her job, is still able to offer some small assistance. Incidents of bullying and retributive justice intensify, as the overworked priest is often unavailable to supervise the understaffed camp.
When Julian and his Cuban neighbor-friend, join the weekly Saturday group who drive to Miami for an outing, Julian makes plans to help his parents escape. This well-paced novel works for both genders, exploring the bravery, resourcefulness, and resolve required by many Cuban refugees to survive and thrive, despite their uprooting and requisite grafting into a new land.

The Red Umbrella
by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.
Knopf, $16.99, Ages 10+

Based on real events, this well-written debut novel is the story of middle class teen Lucia, who watches the crushing consequences of the Cuban revolution in her small town as soldiers arrive, freedoms are dismantled, people disappear, friends act like strangers, and even her family changes. As the name-calling, betrayals, and even lynchings escalate, her parents feel compelled to make the heart-wringing decision to send Lucia, and her younger brother Frankie, to the U.S.
Lucia and Frankie join thousands of Cuban children who, beginning late 1960 until 1962, are separated from their families, their country and their culture, in what came to be called Operation Pedro Pan. This complex, breath-stopping escape plan at least temporarily orphaned many children, who had no family members to meet them and were placed, at best, with host families across the U.S.
Arriving first in Miami at a facility, Frankie and Lucia are separated, which ultimately leads to a decision by the administrators, to send them to a foster home in Nebraska. There they begin adapting to a new language, a new country, a new way of life, with changes as shattering as bullying, missing the important quinceanera (a girl’s all-important fifteenth birthday celebration), rural farm life, periodic long-distance phone calls with the parents still in Cuba, and even the first-time experience of snow.
Gonzalez is adept in employing Spanish language phrases through dialog, augmenting and clarifying the meaning in her use of paraphrasing and furnishing context cues. Additionally, newspaper headlines serve as chapter titles, supplying contemporary commentary. An Author’s Note at the end provides further historical detail.
Basing her story on the experiences of her family members who were among these children, Gonzalez writes with simplicity and understanding of the complex issues in this important part of American history. Many of these concerns are still alive as the 40th anniversary of this remarkable Cuban exodus approaches.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
by Margarita Engle.
Henry Holt, $16.99, Ages 12+

Award-winning poet Engle once again writes in verse, adding this novel to her historic Cuban repertoire. Told in brief but emotionally authentic narrative poems, each of four characters adds a distinctive voice to this immigrant tale.
Thirteen-year-old Daniel, whose musician parents had “only enough money for one ticket to flee Germany,” as the Nazis gain power, arrives in Cuba on a ship that has been turned away from too many harbors. Paloma, also thirteen, whose father, El Gordo, is a corrupt public official who accepts bribes for visas, befriends him. And David, an older Russian Jew, also an immigrant from the previous decade, mentors Daniel, urging him to adapt to Cuba’s warm weather, wonderful fruit, music and dancing.
Ironically, the “J” for Jew, that condemned Daniel in Germany, contributes to saving his life, when German Christians are imprisoned as spies by Cuban authorities. Paloma and Daniel with David’s assistance, help to rescue an elderly mixed religions couple, and begin to trust each other enough to share their secrets.
Daniel’s dream is to be reunited with his parents in Cuba, where they will be able to live once again as a family together. Paloma wants both to become a dancer like the mother who abandoned her, and to confront her father, whose ethical compromises have increased his income.
The Author’s Note at the back explains her family background, which adds vitality to her storytelling and helps to animate her interest in this aspect of Cuban history. As secrets are revealed and trust deepens, the characters expand into hopefulness and young readers are engaged at multiple levels. This superbly written novel strengthens both its characters and its readers, making a hidden part of Cuban history newly accessible.

Reviews published in August 2010 issue of FAMILY magazine

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