The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez 2010
Knopf/ Random House Children's Books
IQ "The revolution may have taken over a lot of things, but it doesn't own a color. For me, red is the symbol of strength, and that's all it will ever represent." Mama pg. 30 (talking about how red is deemed the color of the Revolution)
It's 1961 and Lucia Alvarez has a happy life filled with friends and dreaming about parties (especially her quinceaneara) and boys. She is rudely awakened from her dreams by the arrival of solders in her small town of Puertos Mijares. Changes are made; freedoms are taken away and you can trust no one, not even friends. Lucia's family is being watched because her parents refuse to enroll them in Communist groups for youth and they don't attend Communist meetings. Their situation is becoming more and more dangerous, so Lucia's parents decide to send her and her brother Frankie to America, without them. In America, Lucia and Frankie have no connections to anyone and they are sent to live with a foster family in Nebraska. They miss their parents, friends, the warmth of Cuba, Spanish and everything else that is wonderful about their homeland. Worse yet, Lucia worries that she is changing in ways that her parents may not like.
As a history buff who loves learning about Cuba, I knew a little bit about Operation Pedro Pan but I never knew how bad things in Cuba were. It's pretty well known that Castro took away people's freedom and jailed (or killed) anyone who spoke against him. However I didn't know much about Castro's efforts to brainwash children or that people thought the Revolution was a good thing at first. I gobbled up this story, but even non history lovers will find something to love in this novel. Christina Diaz Gonzalez has effortlessly transported readers back to a time and place that is glided over in American history. Lucia was a realistic fourteen year old, she has to grow up fast, but she doesn't realize that right away. She doesn't understand all the changes going on in Cuba and she doesn't really want to. All Lucia wants is to have life go back to normal (although she's perfectly happy with school being shut down), not be forced to stay inside. I enjoyed watching her slowly become more mature. I adored Frankie, Lucia's seven year old brother. Frankie is determined to protect Lucia when they first arrive in America, but as he settles into life in Nebraska, he reverts back to his childlike ways. The setting of Cuba is distinctly described, there is a sense of impending danger hidden by the lull of everyday life in Cuba. Lucia's parents are trying to protect her and her brother from knowing how severe their situation is.
The first half of the book that takes place in Cuba, slowly unravels to reveal complex people and events. The second half of the book seemed rushed (Sidenote: I'm very curious as to why the story takes place in Nebraska, seems pretty random). We start in the summer and end up shortly after 1962 begins. I wanted to see a little more development of Lucia's life at school, instead the people she meets are merely glossed over. I was disappointed in Yvette's storyline. Yvette is Lucia's best friend and she becomes a member of Castro's communist children brigade (Jovenes Rebeldes). I wish that we had gotten more of Yvette's side of the story. At first, Yvette joins Jovenes Rebeldes because her parents force her to but she has an abrupt change of heart towards the end of the story. I wanted to better understand why people supported Castro, instead we were provided with a one dimensional view of the evils of Castro (and believe me, the man is crazy).
The Red Umbrella is a stirring story about an event in history that we can still feel the effects of today. The Alvarez family is loving and memorable (especially Frankie!). The pacing of the story is uneven, but this doesn't take away too much from the events at the heart of the story. Everyone can relate to this story in some way, we are after all a nation of immigrants. The struggles Lucia and Frankie face are ones that our ancestors have faced, no matter how far back you have to go. I came away from this story with the desire to learn more about my own family's history in America. What makes this story even more powerful is the fact that Lucia and Frankie had to adjust to life in America, alone, at such a young age. They are true embodiments of unselfishness and bravery and I'm not sure if teenagers today (myself included) would be able to do what they did. Walk away from everything you know and love and get settled in a foreign country. My hope is that people who read this story (especially teenagers) will be inspired to find out more about their own family history and will better understand the situation in Cuba, if only a little bit better than before. The meaning of the red umbrella was so hopeful and warm. At a certain point, I had to hold back some sniffles :)
Disclosure: Received from the author and publisher for review. Thank you!