As many of you probably already know, The Red Umbrella is the featured novel for our
December book group meeting. Read more on my thoughts about the book below. Be sure to share your own in the comments section–we’d love to hear what you have to say! For our Albuquerque locals, don’t forget we are meeting this Monday, December 3rd, from 5:00-7:00 at bookworks for our monthly discussion. Hope to see you there!
The Red Umbrella begins in May of 1961, two years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Our main character, 14 year old Lucía Álvarez, leads a fairly normal, if not idealized, life for a teenager. She reads fashion magazines, talks about boys with her best friend, gets annoyed with her younger brother Frankie, and feels her parents are overly strict. For many contemporary teenagers, she would be easy to relate to. But, Lucía’s life is about to change drastically. While the first two years of the revolution under Fidel Castro brought little change to the lives of the Álvarez family, this is no longer the case. There is increasing pressure for all Cuban citizens to join the cause of the revolution. Those who don’t, like Mr. and Mrs. Álvarez, find themselves in precarious positions, unable to trust family members or friends. There is no room for dissent in Castro’s new Cuba. Amidst all of this, there is a growing fear of patria potestad or the idea that the Cuban government plans to take over guardianship of all Cuban children in order to educate and prepare them to be active and supportive members of the Cuban revolution.
As a result of all of these changes and an increasing fear for their own safety, Mr. and Mrs. Álvarez choose to send Lucía and Frankie to the United States as part of what is now referred to as Operation Pedro Pan. Between the years of 1960 and 1962, approximately 14,000 children were sent to the United States unaccompanied. Half of these children had family to take them in, but the other half were taken in by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and then placed in orphanages or with host families. Lucía and Frankie are in this latter group and find themselves living in a small Nebraska farm town with the Baxters, an older couple who no longer have children of their own at home. The second half of the novel follows Lucía and Frankie as they adapt to life in Nebraska and what continues to transpire with their friends and family in Cuba. As much as it is a story about one family’s experience during the Cuban Revolution, it is also about a teenage girl’s coming of age as she leaves all that she knows and makes a new life for herself and her brother in a country she knows little about.
Writing a book on the Cuban Revolution would be difficult, but Christina Diaz Gonzalez has done it well here. Diaz Gonzalez provides a beautifully written account of what it was like to live during the Cuban Revolution and not support it. Much of the story is based upon her own family’s stories and other historical accounts of this period. Written from the point of view of a teenage girl, an important historical period becomes accessible and engaging for other young adult readers. Even as an adult, I had a hard time putting the book down—I think I read it in two sittings. Too often our students think of history as a subject relegated to boring, overly thick textbooks. The Red Umbrella provides an amazing gateway into studying a multitude of historical events in the timeline of U.S.-Cuban relations.
As history has shown over and over, political movements are always incredibly complex and layered. The ideals and objectives of political movements seem so clear on paper, but the reality becomes quite complicated. The Red Umbrella is obviously written from a perspective that is anti-Castro and critical of the Cuban Revolution. I don’t think it is any secret, even to those who have supported Castro’s Revolution, that there were serious issues, including human rights violations. Like so many other revolutions throughout history, the reality didn’t always live up to the ideals. Yet, as a U.S. citizen, I find it hard to make an absolute or overarching statement about the Revolution. While the book does an excellent job of discussing many of the issues that plagued Castro’s revolution, it doesn’t discuss why so many were so eager for the changes that Castro promised or why so many were willing to support Castro. For much of its history, there have been two very different sides to life in Cuba beginning with colonization and the introduction of slavery. In the period preceding Castro’s Revolution many Cubans continued to suffer and struggle to make ends meet, while wealthy Americans and Europeans profited off of lucrative business arrangements. Cuba was a popular vacation destination known as the Las Vegas of the East Coast among wealthy U.S. citizens. Diaz Gonzalez doesn’t address this. In the novel, it is Mrs. Álvarez’s diamond earrings that allow the family to purchase the plane tickets for the children—but what about those who never had that kind of wealth, those who may not have supported the Revolution, but did not have the financial resources to get out? It would be important to discuss this background with students if using the book in class. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, the Cuban Revolution and Operation Pedro Pan is a significant event in history that should be acknowledged and taught. The Red Umbrella is an incredible resource with which to begin that discussion.
While the majority of the novel is easily appropriate for 6-12 grades, and perhaps even late elementary, there are allusions to rape and execution, though nothing explicit is ever stated. It would be up to the discretion of the teacher whether or not this was appropriate for his or her students. If using it in 5th or 6th grade, it may be best implemented as a read aloud, in which case the teacher could choose to not include those parts.
Our Educator’s Guide for the novel is almost complete! We’ll have it posted by early next week here. For now, you’ll find background information, including various awards it has received.