Had I known the subject of The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, prior to reading Barnacle Love, I could have written a great comparison between the two. Both deal with individuals moving to a new land – trying to fit in. In Barnacle Love, the main character has a difficult time of it, and the ending isn’t happy or warm and fuzzy. Ms. Gonzalez however, brings us a YA novel with a more pleasant ending that I enjoyed.
Unbeknownst to me, in 1961 thousands of parents loaded their children onto boats and planes to escape the communist changes of the Cuban revolution. This event was called Operation Pedro Pan. Ms. Gonzalez’s parents were part of this exodus and their story was the inspiration for The Red Umbrella.
Fourteen year old Lucia and her younger brother, Frankie, are living a very comfortable, carefree life in Cuba until they notice soldiers all over town. Their father loses his job as a government official and after returning from an unexplained absence is forced to find work as a manual laborer.
Lucia just wants to be a normal girl. She tries to engage her best friend, but she attends the Communist youth camps, and is obsessed with Castro and the great changes he is bringing to the people of Cuba.
Lucia’s parents manage to secure visas for the kids and they are shipped to the United States – alone. They spend a few months at a a camp in Florida and thanks to some connections, both are lucky enough to travel to the same foster family in Nebraska.
While in Nebraska Lucia confronts the same challenges as all teenage girls. In addition to her coming of age issues, Lucia has to deal with the issues of being different and not knowing if she’ll ever see her parents again.
Although Lucia tells a story that relates to teenagers of any era, this isn’t 2011, it is 1961. Leave it to Beaver was still on the airwaves. This was also the age of The Kennedy’s, space exploration, the Cold War, West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a more naïve part of our history when international travel was not common for most Americans. Cubans, in particular, were treated with a bit of caution due to the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs.
Lucia has a few rebellious moments during her self discovery, but manages to keep her head up and stay positive.
Ms. Gonzalez brought me to tears throughout The Red Umbrella. As a mother, I can not imagine sending my child away with the uncertainty that I may never see her again. Also as an adult, I would have enjoyed learning more about this period in Cuba’s history through the story, but, the book wasn’t written for me, the adult. It was written for the young adult.
The Red Umbrella would be a great addition to a young adult’s libryary. Reading about someone else’s struggles can be very therapeutic. Throw in some Cuban and American history and our YAs will become more worldly. I’m hanging onto this one for my daughter.