Book Review: Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar

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Review by Maria Ramos-Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: The situation is getting dire for Jews in Poland on the eve of World War II. Esther’s father has fled to Cuba, and she is the first one to join him. It’s heartbreaking to be separated from her beloved sister, so Esther promises to write down everything that happens until they’re reunited. And she does, recording both the good–the kindness of the Cuban people and her discovery of a valuable hidden talent–and the bad: the fact that Nazism has found a foothold even in Cuba. Esther’s evocative letters are full of her appreciation for life and reveal a resourceful, determined girl with a rare ability to bring people together, all the while striving to get the rest of their family out of Poland before it’s too late.

Based on Ruth Behar’s family history, this compelling story celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in the most challenging times.

MY TWO CENTS: I am a big fan of Ruth Behar’s and have enjoyed her adult books as much as her debut middle grade book that won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award, Lucky Broken Girl (2017). Her latest book Letters from Cuba doesn’t disappoint. 

I received an advance copy during the Covid-19 pandemic and had not read a book in several weeks because I’d been having trouble concentrating. Knowing I’d be writing this review, I finally gave myself a forced goal of sitting down and reading the first ten pages. I sat in bed with the book, read the first ten pages, and could not stop. I finished the book three hours later! I loved the characters, the epistolary format, and the way the main character Esther learns about Cuba.

The story begins in 1937 with an eleven-year-old (almost twelve) Polish girl writing to her father to ask that she be the sibling chosen to join him on the island of Cuba. Despite being the eldest, she suspects her younger brother, the oldest boy in the family, will be chosen. From the get-go, her feminist character takes form as she continues to show determination, fortitude, and creativity by making the journey to Cuba alone to meet up with her father and help him earn enough money to send for the rest of their family. 

The theme of anti-Semitism is present at both the macro and micro levels, with the book set during the years leading up to the Holocaust and in the racist experiences Esther has in Cuba. Despite the disheartening reality of anti-Semitism, Esther shows us the beauty of embracing multiculturalism and how people from distinct religions, cultures, and ages can come together to form lasting bonds. 

TEACHING TIPS: Given what is happening in the United States as this book is being published (August 2020), it is very timely. I can see using the book to discuss immigration in a Social Studies class or to discuss World War II in a History class. If using the book at a Jewish Day School, it can be used to teach about Jewish multiculturalism and the diaspora.

I can see the book being used to talk about discrimination and why some people hate others simply on the basis of their religion (as Esther experienced in Cuba). Religious persecution intersects with the theme of xenophobia in Letters From Cuba, which could also be connected to a larger discussion of racism. Since anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-Semitism, and racism are currently several of the biggest themes used to create a platform for white supremacy in the United States, this book has the potential to help readers develop empathy for both the immigrant struggle and dangerous implications of hate. 

For more information about the book, read my upcoming August 19, 2020 Blog Post interview with Ruth Behar at www.mariaramoschertok.com

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): As a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher, and public speaker, Ruth Behar is acclaimed for the compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. Born in Havana, Cuba, she grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. Her recent memoirs for adults, An Island Called Home and Traveling Heavy, explore her return journeys to Cuba and her search for home as an immigrant and a traveler. Her books for young readers are Lucky Broken Girl and Letters from Cuba. She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her honors also include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University, and an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria Ramos-Chertok is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/.  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.organd a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas.  For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

Guest Post: A Bucket-load of Talk + No Action = a Bucket-Load of Nothing

By René Saldaña, Jr.

At a cozy dinner attended recently by children’s book writers and illustrators, I listened to two conversations happening simultaneously. On the one side of me, my left, folks were talking about Daniel Handler’s blatantly stupid remarks at the National Book Award ceremony (really, in what world would anyone ever feel entitled to bring up such vile imagery, and worse, to do so in such a cavalier fashion?). Yes, these writers and artists agreed, the remarks were dumb and insensitive at best, racist at worst. But, he did offer an apology (via Twitter, of all places; how much more impersonal can a person get! It seems to be the norm though). He also donated $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books, with the promise to match whatever amount came into WNDB in the next 24 hours, up to $100,000. He apologized, went the logic, and he did give, and to such a worthy organization who is sure to do miracles with these funds (visit this organization’s web site for more information: http://weneeddiversebooks.org). And, so, reluctantly but never the less, most of the authors and illustrators that evening gave Handler the benefit of the doubt. An easy pass, in my opinion.

On the other side of me, my right, others were talking about GOP aide Elizabeth Lauten who, on her Facebook page, wrote some pretty vile material of her own about President Obama’s daughters. A conservative, I categorically disagree with her statements. They were uncalled for. I disavow them, and what consequences she suffers she brought on herself. You see, it’s one thing to attack the politics of the man, even the man himself (as happened with Bush and Palin both and with the same ferocity), but to go after a president’s children, who had no say in his pursuit of the presidency, is uncalled for.

Lauten, my table mates continued, after some soul searching (she’d written that she prayed about her situation, spoke with family who advised her to admit her wrong-doing) apologized and, furthermore, quit her post. Despite Lauten’s behavior after the fact, there was an unwillingness to the right of me, it seemed, to afford her the same “easy way out” as was being given to Handler on the opposite end of the table.

At the hotel room later than night, I couldn’t help but wonder why folks in the industry were able to find it within themselves to forgive the one but not the other? I recalled how my table mates had spoken about Jacqueline Woodson’s very touching response in the New York Times. How much class she had displayed. One or two may have asked if his donation was nothing more than Handler trying to buy his way out of a very bad situation. A token payment, so to speak. Ten thousand little tokens, and then some. A lot of then some. Others responded that no matter, the money went to a great cause, that the amount of money raised in a day’s time was enormous, and imagine all the good that can come of it. Etc., etc.

Cynical like I am, the contrasting reactions at the table that night and from across the nation, boil down to politics for me. Who is given a pass for belonging to one party or the other, and who is not because he or she is a member of the opposite one? Best I can tell, Handler is likely left-leaning, as seems to be the majority of the publishing industry. He, like President Obama, has permission to evolve. He comes, as Woodson writes, from a place of ignorance, but his intent was never to hurt surely. He made a mistake, and hasn’t he already paid for it? (Literally?) He has learned his lesson, right? He has recognized the error of his way? And he’s dealt with it, no?

Lauten, on the other hand, is a Republican; therefore, her apology and action thereafter mean little. They are proof of her and the party’s hypocritical stance on diversity. Their lack of sympathy for the downtrodden. A heartless bunch, those conservatives. After all, once a racist, always a racist. And so she can’t possibly be sincere in her request for forgiveness. Her motives questionable.

In his reaction following the Eric Garner grand jury decision refusing to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, President Obama stated, “…this is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for too long, and it’s time for us to make more progress than we’ve made. And I’m not interested in talk, I’m interested in action.” The president was speaking, obviously, about violence against Black men at the hands of the police and a similar violence against the Black community at the hands of those charged with finding justice for the disenfranchised: the grand jury. A jury of any kind. Our peers, impartial, truth-seekers, supposedly. But who fail, sometimes more miserably than at others.

President Obama’s words can also be applied to our quest for diversity in the publishing and education worlds. We can talk the talk all day long and not get one single solitary thing done. Talk is cheap, after all. We’ve been doing nothing but talking for far too long.

The alternative is to walk the walk. This means taking hard stances some times. This is one of those times, an occasion that matters more than we can imagine. Those affected for better or worse are those for whom we claim to work. Yes, Handler apologized, but it cannot be that easy for us to wave away his brand of racism because he gives to a good cause. We can’t let Handler off the hook, I don’t care how much money he donated and helped raise.

How many times have we said of kids of all ages “Oh, they know more than we realize”? It’s true. And this moment is no different, except in terms of the context of the times: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and several other instances our kids are hyper-aware of. There are protests across our nation fighting racism. They will hear what happened, what he said, how he laughed it off. How we let him off easy. They will see through our hypocrisy. It either matters, or it doesn’t. Just let that sink into your mind.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m overjoyed at what Ellen Oh, et al. will be able to do for young readers from the various diverse populations. These folks are walking the walk. They are taking action.

I, like our president, though, am tired of talk. Our children’s literacy success rests largely in our hands. And talk isn’t going to improve anything. It hasn’t thus far. Proof is Handler’s imagery from that evening’s speech. Isn’t he supposed to be from amongst our more enlightened class? If he hasn’t gleaned from all this talk over decades that there are lines drawn for a reason, then all this talk hasn’t accomplished much, has it?

Talk and talk and talk about what can possibly be done to make change happen is okay, but it’s got to lead somewhere. So far, it hasn’t on a grand scale. Rukhsana Khan explained more poignantly than I can ever do the harm a lack of action on our parts can do to an already-disenfranchised child. During her opening remarks at this year’s NCTE Friday morning General Session, she described the setting: a house, which implies an indoors and an outdoors; indoors a warm fire, comfortable chairs; outside, a porch, the cruel elements; inside, people with the means to turn the world of literature and literacy on its head, but who instead sit by the fire warming themselves; outside, the marginalized looking in, freezing, invisible, worthless. One looking in dreaming of the warmth, a place at the fire; the other looking at one’s reflection in the window produced by that darkness without.

I can’t tell you what to do to begin to right the wrong, or how. I won’t. That’s entirely up to you. What I will tell you is that the matter is urgent. These kids cannot be disappeared, and we—writers, illustrators, poets, literacy advocates, educators, publishers—cannot let them be disappeared. Handler gave; Lauten resigned. Both took action to try to fix things. Most of us don’t have the kind of cash Handler does, nor can we give up our livelihoods. But we can DO. Something. And something is better than nothing.

Our children’s lives depend on it.

 

Rene SaldanaRené Saldaña, Jr., is the author of the bilingual picture book Dale, dale, dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. He’s an associate professor of Language and Literature in the College of Education at Texas Tech University in West Texas. He’s also the author of several books for young readers, among them The Jumping Tree, Finding Our Way: Stories, The Whole Sky Full of Stars, A Good Long Way, and the bilingual Mickey Rangel detective series. He can be reached at rene.saldana@sbcglobal.net.