Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar

It's 1938 and Papa has been in Cuba for three years, working to save money to bring the rest of his family there from Poland and away from the  increasing Nazi threat to Jews. Normally, it would be the eldest son, Moshe, who would be the first child to join his father, but 11-going-on-12-year-old Esther Abraham, the eldest daughter, makes such a convincing case to Papa, that she is chosen to join him, much to her mother's consternation. 

But, on her own, Esther travels through Poland, Nazi Germany, and Holland, boards a ship to cross the Atlantic, only to learn that the first stop is Mexico, not Cuba and that she will be the only passenger when they leave port. But Esther, being a naturally friendly girl, has made friends with the animals on board, spending time with them until they reach Havana, Cuba and the next delay.

In the end, Papa is there and, before they head to the town where he lives, he has to conduct some business, introducing Esther to Zvi Mandelbaum. It turns out Papa's job in Cuba is as a itinerant peddler, not the shopkeeper his family thought he was, and he gets his wares from Mandelbaum, who immediately gives Esther a pair of sandals so she can take off her hot woolen stockings. 

From the moment Esther began her trip, she decided to write down "every interesting thing that happens" in letters for her younger sister Malka. That way when the rest of the family are finally in Cuba, they can read the letters and it will be as if they had been together the whole time. (pg 2) The result is detailed descriptions of the people Esther meets, the places she goes, and her daily life with Papa.

Esther is friendly, outgoing, and smart, picking up Spanish quickly. And she is also quite enterprising, helping her father sell the items he is given by Mandelbaum. Despite being the only Jews in the town of Matanzas, almost everyone friendly and giving, accepting her and her father. But after Esther sews herself a new dress to wear in the hot Cuban weather, she soon begins a successful trade as a dressmaker to help make money to bring her family to Cuba. 

Their lives in Cuba are basically pleasant and enjoyable, filled with new friends of diverse backgrounds, including Manuela and her Afro Cuban grandmother, and the Changs from China, as well as the local doctor and his wife, Señora Graciela. It is she who gives Esther a sewing machine that helps her begin her dressmaking business. But Cuba are not without its Nazi sympathizers, including the doctor's brother, Señor Eduardo. He wants to start a Nazi party in Cuba with an anti-immigrant agenda to get rid of the Jews there.

As the situation in Europe becomes more perilous for the Jews there, it becomes more and more imperative to get the money to bring the whole Abraham family to Cuba. 

Esther's letters to Malka are quite detailed. And though the story may not be the kind of exciting tale we are accustomed to from this period in history, it is still a wonderful window into a life we don't often read about. Small wonder it reads so authentically. Behar based this novel on her grandmother's experience of traveling to Cuba in 1927 to join her father. Like Esther, her family had lived in Govorvo, Poland. And like Esther, one beloved family member didn't make to Cuba. 

I enjoyed reading Letters from Cuba a lot. Sometimes I just don't want a lot of action and an epistolary novel like this is just the ticket for an evening of reading during COVID-19 time. Esther is a great character - a bold feminist yet respectful of her elders, especially Papa, and her religious traditions. I can't even imagine letting an 11-year-old girl travel from Poland to Cuba, part of the way in Nazi territory, all by herself. She is a character with perseverance, fortitude, and a maturity beyond her age, as well as a pretty good business woman.

Behar includes an extensive and very interesting Note from the Author about her family and how they settled in Cuba, and her research for writing this book. There is also a list of Resources for further reading.

An Educator's Guide is available to download courtesy of the publisher Nancy Paulsen Books HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from Nancy Paulsen Books through NetGalley

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