The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Hardback, 272 pages.
Cuba, 1961: Two years after the communist revolution, Lucía still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her small town, everything begins to change. Suddenly the revolution hits home. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.
As the revolution’s impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.
Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?
The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home. ~inside cover.
Christina Diaz Gonzalez was inspired by the stories of her own family. Her parents and mother-in-law were a part of a mass exodus from Cuba of unaccompanied minors called Operation Pedro Pan. Parents sent their children away from Castro’s Cuba to prevent them from indoctrination, among other things. Between 1960-1962, over 14, 000 children came to the U.S. to stay w/ extended family, foster families, or orphanages.
Gonzalez writes a fictional account based on her research, and on the stories she grew up with. The results are wonderful. I am not a big historical fiction reader, unless it is late 1800s, early 1900s England or America. Rarely will you find me with a book set in the 1960s or 70s. Part of my disinterest in contemporary historical is the disconnect, the human story lost in the procuring of the setting, all the cultural references. Gonzalez has an elegant hand.
There are a lot of dark corners in The Red Umbrella where one could dwell. Gonzalez doesn’t skate over the darker aspects as she informs, but she doesn’t dwell on them either. While I think some would like to see more of the dramatic conflict deepen, the book moves forward and keeps the younger audience in mind. There are plenty of terrible events to capture the mind without extending the reach of the book into horror. I appreciate that despite the weight of the subject matter, it is balanced with the coming-of-age which is ever a source of humor.
The Red Umbrella is well-written, wrenching and humorous and hopeful. I like the perspectives Gonzalez employs. Even though the novel is a first person narrative–Lucia, there are letters and good dialogue. Lucia isn’t a diarist, she isn’t proclaimed as observant. We know she is intelligent. Lucia isn’t particularly brave or sassy or boyish or clever, and this makes her a lovely protagonist. She is an ordinary 14 in an extraordinary time.
Lucia is on the cusp of womanhood, looking forward to her quinces in November. I love her struggling with the confines of childhood, and desiring greater freedoms. She is a great age for a story where Freedoms become restricted. And where some Freedoms come too quickly? “I’d always wanted my parents to give me a little more freedom. Now I was about to experience complete independence. My stomach churned” (121).
The relationship between Lucia and her little brother Frankie is marvelous. Actually, all the relationships are nicely done, easily felt. I had become quickly attached to them all. And while Lucia’s thoughts were drawn to home, mine were already there. While I was ever hopeful that things would go well for Lucia in nowhere Nebraska, I was mindful of where her parents were. Gonzalez places Lucia in a positive hopeful place when she puts Lucia and Frankie (together) with the Baxters, but what about the parents left behind? What about Cuba?–the wonderful country of her birth that would make an orphan of her–as she can no longer be its daughter. Or can she?
Lucia worries that her mother wouldn’t recognize her, she worries that she won’t be able to recognize herself. She has to wear other people’s clothes, speak another people’s language, eat strange food and farm. She has no familiarity of community but for Mass spoken in Latin. Things work out. And though she hasn’t the ease her brother seems to have, she finds connection and warm reception. It is a wonderful facet to the story that Lucia isn’t the one doing all the trying. She isn’t truly alone. The progression to the story is really nicely done.
“The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.” Gonzalez informs and charms. And she affirms the value of family and community and the freedoms we often take for granted; certainly she reminds us of what is luxury and what is necessity.
The Red Umbrella is Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s first novel. I am looking forward to future works–thank you Knopf for publishing a beautiful story written by a very talented storyteller.
The Red Umbrella includes an ‘author’s note’ which is very informative; also, there is a section of ‘Spanish words and phrases used in The Red Umbrella‘–not that the reader can’t decipher from context, this is a really nice addition.
The Red Umbrella would make for a nice quiet film.
I picked up this read from the “concenter list“–my effort toward reading/supporting marginalized groups of authors in middle-grade and young-adult fiction. I am having a really good time with this list. If you have read any from either list on the “concenter” page and want to do a write-up or have–I will likely host you, or link you–so let me know.
Christina Diaz Gonzalez's website.