The Red Umbrella

Inspired by stories she heard from her grandparents, Christina Diaz Gonzalez tells the story of a teen’s secret evacuation from Cuba in Operation Pedro Pan.

The Red Umbrella By Christina Diaz Gonzalez Random House Children’s Books 288 pp., $16.99 Recommended for ages 9-12

Enjoying an unexpected holiday from algebra class, giggling about boyfriends with her best pal, Ivette, planning what to wear to the school dance – Lucía’s life seems fairly normal. Her concerns mirror those of contemporary teens.

But then the reality of living in Cuba in 1961, under Fidel Castro’s regime, sets in and The Red Umbrella, Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s debut novel, assumes an entirely different tone.

Because he does not cooperate with mandates from the new government, Lucía’s father loses his job as well as their financial stability. Ostracized by neighbors and even by family members, Lucía’s parents make the difficult choice to send their children to America to live with complete strangers, rather than allow them to be indoctrinated.

Lucía and her young brother, Frankie, leave Cuba, taking with them nothing of value except boxes of cigars to sell. After a brief stay in a Miami relocation camp, they arrive in rural Grand Isle, Neb., having never owned a winter coat or seen a snowfall.

Like many teenagers who pine for independence, Lucía always wished her mother, with her embarrassingly large umbrella and overly strict rules about makeup, would allow her more freedom. But when the plane takes off for Miami, Lucía peers out the window hoping for a glimpse of her parents, not knowing when she will see them again. As a sadness washes over Lucía, Frankie spots Mamá in the crowd below. The red umbrella opens up against the blue skies, and Lucía admits “that big stupid thing had never looked so beautiful.”

Inspired by stories she heard from her grandparents, who were part of what became known as Operation Pedro Pan (an evacuation plan organized by the United States government that brought thousands of Cuban children from anti-Castro families to the US), Gonzalez writes this debut novel with tremendous love. Spanish phrases, easily deciphered and often translated, are sprinkled throughout the narrative. The endnotes provide a vocabulary as well as an explanation of Operation Pedro Pan. At the head of each chapter, news headlines published during Cuba’s revolution add authenticity. Although the family depicted is decidedly anti-Castro, the story is firmly grounded in the reality of the time.

As Lucía struggles to adapt, the warmth of her foster mom and dad and her new American friends help the young teen adjust to her new life. But the infrequent, poignant calls to her parents in Cuba show the tremendous sacrifice families made. Lucía’s journey from Cuba to Nebraska, although based on fact and politics, is personal. Through the eyes of this likable young narrator, readers will understand a compelling part of history. Kudos to Christina Diaz Gonzalez for sharing her family’s story, and for telling it so well.

Augusta Scattergood frequently reviews children’s literature for the Monitor.

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