In 1961, fourteen-year-old Lucia Alvarez lives a charmed life on the beautiful island country of Cuba. She loves reading the latest fashion magazines, daydreaming about her crush Manuel and planning her up-coming quincenara with her best friend Ivette. But storm clouds are gathering. President Fidel Castro has ordered factories to be shut down and churches closed. Lucia has noticed that many of her friends, included Ivette, have started attending the Jovenes Rebeldes youth political meetings sponsored by Castro’s government. There are soldiers on every corner. And her father’s boss at the bank has suddenly been arrested and taken away. At first, Lucia doesn’t understand why her parents don’t support the government revolution that promises to make everything better for everyone. “I couldn’t believe how judgmental Papa was being…Castro had no choice but to have the government take over many of the businesses so that there wouldn’t be so much corruption. It was all for the benefit of the country, and everyone was expected to pitch in and help. What harm was there in that?” But when her father is arrested for “hoarding” their family valuables instead of turning them over to the government and Lucia witnesses an unspeakable act of violence in the local park, she realizes her parents are right not to trust Castro’s Revolution. “Before, I didn’t want to think about people being jailed, killed or forced to leave their homes. I thought those people must have done something wrong or just didn’t love Cuba enough. But now I knew better…Castro was, in one way or another, eliminating those who didn’t agree with him.” And now Lucia has to accept an even harder truth—her parents are sending her and her little brother Francisco to the United States to keep them safe from the forced “youth brigades” that separate children from their parents. The last thing Lucia sees as her plane takes off for a foreign place called “Nebraska” is her mother’s bright red umbrella, the only speck of color in a sea of parents frantically waving goodbye to their children. Will she ever see her parents or Cuba again? “It was no use pretending this was an ordinary trip. We weren’t choosing to come here, and we had no idea when we’d be going back home.”
Good historical fiction introduces you to some intriguing tidbit of the past that somehow didn’t make it into your history textbook. That’s what Christina Diaz Gonzalez does with this oh-so-interesting debut novel. I had never heard of Operation Pedro Pan, the underground organization that helped over 14,000 children and teens get out of Cuba and into the United States in the early 1960’s. I was completely fascinated by the true aspects of Lucia’s story and immediately started looking up more information about Cuba during that time period (another hallmark of good hist. fic—it makes you want to dig up more facts on the topic!) In addition to her top notch research, Gonzalez’s depiction of Lucia and Francisco’s culture shock when they join their Nebraska foster family left me laughing and cringing at the same time. Like the scene where Mrs. Baxter, their Nebraska sponsor, has Lucia to put Tabasco sauce on her eggs: “ ‘Oh my, you don’t like it? Mrs. Baxter’s eyebrows were scrunched together. “I thought you liked spicy food. I read that in Mexico they put it on everything…’ ‘Ughmm.’ I cleared my throat. ‘In Cuba, we no eat spicy food. Mexico yes, Cuba no.’ Even my ears felt hot.” You can easily see why this hip hist. fic. needs to be put on your TBR list ASAP.