The Red Umbrella
Lucia likes bright red nail polish and skirts that swing. She reads Seventeen Magazine like a typical American teenage girl. But she is not American, and her life is not typical. It is Cuba, 1961, and Lucia’s beautiful, romantic world is being destroyed by the revolution. Lucia’s friends have all joined the Jóvenes Rebeldes and the cute boy from math class acts like an arrogant brigadista. Her parents now whisper behind closed doors and won’t let Lucia and her little brother, Frankie, outside the house. Lucia chafes at the loss of freedom and blames her parents for being overly protective. But then her parents send Lucia and Frankie alone to America through Operation Pedro Pan, and they are taken in by a farmer and his wife who live in Nebraska. Lucia now is free of her parents and the revolution, but at what cost?
I loved this story. Lucia’s teen voice is spot on, and her growth from pampered daughter of a banker to hard-working farm girl gave a wonderful depth to the narrative. Diaz Gonzalez weaves in the historical aspects of the revolution with just the right balance, informing young readers through chapter titles and dialogue about what was happening in 1961 without going too much into why it was happening or the United States’ role in the Cuban revolution, which would be more appropriate for older teen readers. This is a story about family love and sacrifice, how war can turn even best friends into enemies, and the goodness of strangers. And while these are universal themes that transcend the story, this is a story that needs to be told as Operation Pedro Pan is still one that is largely unknown in the United States outside of the 14,000 children and their foster families who participated in it.
Lucia Álvarez is an archetypical teen who dresses in the latest fashions and loves shopping with her best friend Ivette. When Cuban soldiers visit their small town, many people, including the people that Lucia knows, are executed for speaking out against Fidel Castro. Her father, who works at the bank, takes out their valuables and hides them in the house. Later, however, their house is searched by soldiers who take everything, including Lucia’s mother’s wedding ring. Lucia and her brother, Frankie, are sent to Miami, Florida, alone to live at a camp to await a foster family. When Lucia and Frankie are transferred to a farm on Nebraska to live with the Baxters, Lucia discovers they are the next best people to her parents. After studying English with Mrs. Baxter all summer, Lucia starts high school in an American public school with other teenagers. Lucia befriends another farm girl, Jennifer, and they are soon best friends like Lucia and Ivette once were before Ivette joined the Jóvenes Rebeldes. Just like any other high school there are cliques and football players and ordinary people who are more of Lucia’s crowd. Even with this American life, Lucia can’t help but miss life in Cuba with its warm oceans and white sand and of course, her parents.
I loved this book! It’s a moving story perfect for young adults. I can’t help but be on Lucia’s side with her strength and courage living with totally new people in a different country and feeling torn between her old life and her new one.