Author Chantel Acevedo has been WINNER of the Doris Bakwin Award and WINNER of the Latino International Book Award for two previous novels.
“I was a lector…a cigar factory reader…I’d read for hours entertaining [the workers] as they rolled tobacco. Shakespeare was a favorite in the tabaquerias…They [also] liked Dumas…They loved The Count of Monte Cristo….Sometimes, however, I would only pretend to read to the cigar rollers. There I would sit, high in my lector’s chair, five feet over their heads…Then I’d pretend to read from [a book], but what I was really doing was telling my own stories, true stories, about my life.”—Maria Sirena
It is 1963, as the novel opens, and the devastating Hurricane Flora, “bigger than all of Cuba,” is now lashing the island, having already caused devastation throughout Haiti, where it killed five thousand people. Main character Maria Sirena, age eighty-two, has been forcibly evacuated from her small seaside house by Ofelia, a young revolutionary soldier, who takes her and seven other women to safety on the top floor of Casa Diego Velazquez, the sixteenth century home, now a museum, of the first governor of Cuba. For a couple of days, Maria Sirena rides out the storm with Ofelia and the other women, keeping her companions occupied with stories from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents as they lived through Cuba’s various wars for independence from the late nineteenth century to 1963. She has much experience as a story-teller, having been for many years a lector, a reader hired by a cigar factory to read stories to the workers so that they would not become bored as they hand-made cigars.
Author Chantel Acevedo, a second-generation Cuban American, keeps her focus on the lives of “ordinary” people like Maria Sirena and her fellow guests of the Casa – hardworking folks, often poor, who have struggled all their lives – showing how they have survived and what they have had to do to live. It is through this personal focus, rather than any detailed historical focus, that three-quarters of a century of modern Cuban revolutionary history emerges for the reader. Born aboard the Thalia in 1881, when her parents were sailing back to Cuba from Boston, after attending a meeting with the exiled leaders of Cuba’s revolutionary movement, Maria Sirena always seemed destined for involvement in revolutionary activities. Just before the moment of her birth aboard the ship, her father, Agustin, a man with “inherited rage,” confronted the Spanish captain of the ship, and demanded the captain take down the Spanish flag and raise the flag of Cuba’s revolutionary movement so that his child could be born free. A pistol “thrust under the captain’s jaw” was persuasive. Later aboard the same ship, omens appear to the baby’s mother, Iluminada Alonso (Lulu), who is convinced that she sees the “dark, wet head of a lady” as that lady is emerging in the wake of the ship. The lady is claiming Lulu’s baby for herself. Since Lulu is unsure what kind of deity she is dealing with, Lulu names her child Maria Sirena.
The novel develops in kaleidoscopic fashion, with small colorful episodes from various time periods appearing seemingly at random and mixing with other episodes and events from other periods to broaden the reader’s picture of the characters and their lives. Maria Sirena and the women staying at the Casa Velazquez are one layer of story-telling which remains constant throughout the novel, but within their stories, other layers emerge. Maria Sirena’s next door neighbor Ada, for example, tells of watching the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, though Maria Sirena’s own memories of the period are quite different. She herself, just seventeen, had been nursing her baby son Mayito at that climactic moment, which inspires different memories for her. Maria Sirena, we learn, also has a past connection to Casa Velazquez, since her father spent time there as a child when his own mother, Inconsolada, was a governess to the children there. As Maria Sirena enters Casa Velazquez for protection from the storm, she hears chanting in a foreign language. She is not surprised that no one else hears it: she knows that the chanting was not her memory but her father’s.
This painting of Jose Marti, poet and hero of the revolution in 1898, is by Rene Mederos.
Later we learn more about Agustin, Maria Sirena’s father, and his imprisonment during the revolutionary period in the late nineteenth century; about Lulu’s connection with Antonio Maceo and famed poet Jose Marti, heroes of the first Cuban revolution; and eventually, more about Maria Sirena, her loves, her life, and, not incidentally, her connection to revolution. Throughout, she wants the best for her family and always does what she thinks is right, but she is young and often naive when it counts, and her opportunities have been limited. The arrival of the American investors at the end of the Spanish-American War exacerbates her problems, and her innocent actions, in response, pain her for the rest of her days. As Maria Sirena tells her own story, it becomes a personal confession, as she says much more than she has ever admitted even to close friends, and the presence of Mireya, who was once a special friend, but who now, mysteriously, has nothing good to say to her at the Casa, adds to her discomfort. All these story lines overlap and often intersect unexpectedly, providing the reader with a growing portrait of the characters first, and then, connected to those, Cuban history on an epic scale.
As I reflect back on this novel, I am stunned that the author has been able to include so much within a novel of fewer than three hundred pages. Her impressionism, her ability to convey so much of the atmosphere within a country for three-quarters of a century of history, her sensitivity to the personal nature of each individual memory as it is revealed by someone who has lived and felt and suffered, and her appreciation of the grandeur of life – on the monumental scale which individuals so seldom appreciate – make this novel unusual and very special. The chronology of the personal stories, regardless of the actual time period in which they occurred, keeps the narrative tension high, and the interest in the characters at their peak. The novel, filled with exciting and multilayered action, offers insights into a country which remains full of mysteries to the present day.