Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: "The Red Umbrella" by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Title: The Red Umbrella
Author: Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2010

*Note: I apologize for the lack of accent marks in this review. I am computer incompetent sometimes and couldn't figure out how to do it!*

Lucia Alvarez is your typical teenage girl. She loves fashion, is excited to start wearing makeup, dreams over her crush. But she is not a modern teen in America—she lives in Cuba in 1961, the beginning of Castro's revolution. She notices things in her safe community of Puerto Mijares start to change: people are disappearing, losing jobs, and joining brigades supporting the revolution. Even her best friend starts to support it and forget about the things that once meant something to her.

At first Lucia thinks this is all for the best, a good thing. The revolution will make life better and more equal for everyone, or so she is told. But when she begins to see trusted members of her community being taken away and her own home life is drastically changed, she's not so sure. Finally her parents make an incredibly difficult decision: to send her and her little brother, Frankie, to the United States. Alone.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez tells the story of a young teen who goes through complete upheaval, taken away from everything she knows, including her language and family, and is plopped down in a completely foreign environment. What makes this story so incredible is that it's not an isolated incident. In an author's note, Gonzalez tells us about what later became known as Operation Pedro Pan, the largest exodus of unaccompanied children into the United States ever. I had never heard of this before I had the good fortune of hearing Gonzalez speak at the Boston Book Festival back in October and was immediately intrigued.

The story is one of heartache and change, of coming of age in a land not your own and being forced to grow up a little sooner than expected. Lucia witnesses horrific things in the place she's lived her whole life, and not too long after finds out she is leaving her homeland the day before her plane is due to leave—everything happens so quickly that she has trouble processing it all.

The story is told in such a way that it is hard to set it down for a break. I always wanted to find out what was going to happen to Lucia and Frankie; how they were going to adjust to everything, whether or not they would ever be reunited with their parents, what was happening to their friends and family in Cuba.

Lucia is easy to relate to for girls, as she deals with typical teenage problems like wardrobe choices, high school friends and enemies, and changing relationships. Her voice is authentic and easy to listen to (and by listen to I mean read).

I loved all of the adults in the book, too. Her parents are parents—they worry about their children and wants what's best for them. Lucia's mother nags her to do what's right, even on a long-distance phone call from Cuba (don't wear makeup, don't date, dress appropriately, don't act like those American teenagers in the movies!). Her father always tries to make the best of things and bring humor into their lives when others might see none. And their foster parents are fantastic, too. Mrs. Baxter is a motormouth and a very motherly woman, who isn't quite sure about Cuban culture, mixing it up with Mexican on one occasion, but who will do her very best to help the Alvarez children and love them like her own. Mr. Baxter is much more quiet and sparing with his affection; Lucia doesn't believe he even likes the two of them, despite Mrs. Baxter's affirmation of the contrary. Eventually we see his hard exterior break down bit by bit. I cared about all of them, and for me that is one of the most crucial things in reading a book.

The only thing I would say is that it might help to know a bit about the history of all this before beginning the story. The author's note is essential for those who know nothing, and I might even suggest reading it before the rest of the book. I was lucky enough to know about it beforehand and I think it aided in my reading of the book. That said, each chapter begins with a real headline from a newspaper in the United States about the Cuban revolution and Castro's rise to power, providing valuable background and insight for the reader. The headlines progress along with the story chronologically.

A fantastic introduction for a little-addressed yet important part of American and Cuban history, this story provides historical knowledge in the form of a page-turning novel from the perspective of a young teen trying to make sense of what her world has become.

Also, I just want to say how much I love this cover art. The images of the two places with the umbrella in the middle and the map in the background? Fantastic.

Disclosure: I purchased this book for review (and got it signed!).

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