Saturday, January 1, 2011

YA Book Review: The Red Umbrella

Christina Diaz Gonazalez's The Red Umbrella is based on Fidel Castro's rise to power and the impact his Communist government had on the family unit.  We follow the uncertain path the fictional Alvarez family is forced to negotiate based on increasingly harsh dictates of the new Cuba.  Children were to be the property of the state and as such were to be indoctrinated in government boarding schools or in the Soviet Union.  The Red Umbrella tells the very real story of Operation Pedro Plan: the escape of Cuban children to the United States.

Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez do not want what Castro's Cuba is becoming and make the decision to send their two children, Lucia and Frankie, to be cared for and eventually placed into a foster home by  the Catholic Welfare Bureau.  Lucia is our tour guide on the Alvarez family journey through some of the early horrors and discomfort in Cuba, to her and Frankie's trip to their foster home in Nebraska, and to their eventual reunion with her mother and father.

Each chapter is labeled with a different headline from a newspaper relating various decisions and actions imposed in Cuba from May, 1961-April 2, 1962.  While The Red Umbrella is historical fiction, important historical fiction at that, the history is written in a style accessible and interesting to middle school readers.  Gonzalez offers a smart balance of family, friend, and society.  We experience Lucia's struggles with many situations in her life: her best friend back in Cuba, Ivette, grows into a staunch Castro supporter; Frankie, her brother, is much younger and needs a lot of her care and attention;  she witnessed the murder of an anti-revolutionary; Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez are being closely monitored by Castro's government and there is the very real fear that harm may come to them; her adjustment to life in America and life away from her mother and father; the adjustment to life with a foster mother and father; and there are a couple of cruel teen social experiences placed in for good measure.

What the author does so well is allow Lucia to struggle with making sense of everything which is happening to her.  This is a kid just starting ninth grade and she is living something few in our country currently experience or understand.  I enjoyed the different types of interactions Lucia had with Americans: friendly, indifferent, patronizing, pandering...and how each of these interactions were read from her perspective.  For instance, her foster father begins his relationship with saying little more than, "Hmmph" or similar grunts and groans.  What we learn as we read onward is that this is Lucia's understanding of it; she had so much going on in her life that she couldn't read or possibly know that he was really taking to the foster kids.  Lucia had to be told that Mr. Baxter really liked them.  When she sat back and thought about it, she could name specific instances which verified that.  The reader learns along with Lucia.

I do think that any kid who has ever moved to our country from abroad would find much to connect to in this YA novel.  However, I do not mean to suggest that this is a novel just for a specified audience.  I think there is a movie here which would appeal to a wide audience.  Gonzalez tells this story with a personal investment: her parents and mother-in-law lived the experience her fictional Lucia and Frankie went through themselves.

I think anytime a story comes from both family and the heart there is the potential for something for audiences to connect with, but add to it the fact that it is based on true, incredulous (for us) historical events, and we have something valuable just beyond entertainment.  We have a book here by an author who gets the fact that storytelling is an art which is powerful and influential.  There is room on bookshelves for all types of books about twinkly vampires and teen werewolves in love (if it gets kids to read I'm in), but I am becoming increasingly fond of the current trend of some YA authors who are writing books with social impact and value: viva la revolucion!  This is where the movie industry should peer when the vampire craze recedes back into the tide of recycled ideas.

This book will be on my desk when I return to school on Monday and it will be ready for whomever decides to pick it up and read it.

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