Review by Elena Foulis
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: It is 1957 in Marianao, a suburb on the outskirts of Havana. Adela Santiago is thirteen years old and lives in a small blue house with her mother, father, brother, and grandfather. And yet something is amiss. Her neighbors are disappearing. Not only that, but her parents’ marriage seems to be disintegrating and her cousin is involved with a bombing at the Hotel Nacional. Welcome to a world where the sight of police officers shooting citizens in broad daylight is a normalcy, where every day there is a higher body count than the day before, where in the cramped pews of churches, in the creaking wood of backwards Havana alleys, a revolution is brewing. Welcome to Cuba.
MY TWO CENTS: Viviana Prado-Nuñez’s first novel, The Art of White Roses, is a beautifully told story of a young girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba. Adela, the protagonist, tells the story of her neighborhood, family, and friends as she tries to make sense of how disappearances, violence, and affairs affect her and the people she loves. The story looks deeply into family life, such as sibling interactions, her parents’ sweet but complicated relationship, and Adela’s abuelo. Despite the political conditions of the time—including repression, police brutality, and desaparecidos—Adela is most impacted by her family dynamics. As she tries to make sense of cruelty, mysteries, and her own disappointments, Adela is both observant and conversant about the possible deaths of universitarios whom they all knew and who were possible revolucionarios. She witnesses the death of Luis, a neighbor and troubled-young man who also might have been part of an uprising against the police, and her own family drama of her father’s affair. One of my favorite chapters is, “The night they met,” because Prado-Nuñez’s weaves happy memories of when Adela’s parents met and the present reality of their strained marriage. The author’s narrative choice, at once nostalgic, funny, and tragic, centers around Adela’s perspective with the backdrop of the revolution.
The novel is not always told chronologically, rather, each of the chapters tells the story of an event, family member, or place. The stories help the reader see the protagonist’s development, but it is not a typical coming-of-age story, meaning, there is no event that suddenly helps her find her voice. Instead, Adela’s understanding of herself is directly tied to her place and community, including the oppressive political circumstances that, in the end, force her family to move. Her future is uncertain—including her educational future—because of circumstances that have to do with her father’s affair first, and her Batista’s regime second. Prado-Nuñez’s detailed descriptions of places and people add to Adela’s understanding of the world around her, and the reader enjoys the author’s carefully crafted narrative. This is best exemplified by her discussion of the book’s title, connected to José Martí’s poem and personal story of choosing to love and forgive, in the face of pain, as Adela’s father explains, “white roses are hard times,” and later says, “white roses are hard for me, too.”
TEACHING TIPS: Taking advantage of today’s digital tools, a google earth exploration of Marianao, its surrounding neighborhoods, and its proximity to Havana, can help understand the setting and how that might determine the experiences of Adela and her family. Research on Hotel Nacional, a historical site, will add to discussion of time and place of the novel. There is a lot to explore visually via photography about Cuba, especially since it seems suspended in time. These already available resources, can lead to digital projects such as storymaps, digital storytelling and digital archival projects about neighborhoods and historical sites. While the historical background of Bastista and Castro is important, it would be also helpful to study American influence in the country and how this might have affected Cubans during this time and how this has informed U.S.-Cuba relations today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Viviana Prado-Núñez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in a hospital with a 4.0 Google review rating and a view of the ocean. Previous publications include The Best Teen Writing of 2014, 4×4 Magazine, Columbia Spectator, and Quarto Magazine. She is also the 2017 winner of the Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature for her novel, The Art of White Roses.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.