I was recently at Cover to Cover, and on display at the check-out counter was The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I trust the opinions of the smart ladies at Cover to Cover, so if they thought this was a book worth displaying, I decided to get it and put it at the top of my "to read" pile.
I'm soooooo glad I did! It's hard to believe this is a first novel for Gonzalez because she has very adeptly put many layers in this story. Whether it was intentional or not, I'm not certain, but what the layers allow is wider audience access to the plot of the story. Whether you're an upper elementary student reading it for plot and characters, or you're a middle/senior high school student studying the time Castro came to power in Cuba and how it affected the people, or you're an adult like me who remembers seeing stories about Castro on the television news -- The Red Umbrella will appeal to all.
A few of the "layers" that really help move the story along:
- From chapter 1 to chapter 37 (the last one), Gonzalez starts each one with a quote or headline from a variety of United States newspapers that tell what was going on in Cuba. The story starts with a headline dated May 2, 1961, and ends with a headline from April 2, 1962. A study could be done of these chapter titles alone to see the transitions in Cuba over an 11 month period.
- A very believeable main character in Lucia, a 14 year old, whose biggest worries are what outfit to wear, what boy might like her, and how to spend time with friends. All that changes early on when the private Catholic school she goes to is shut down because the priests are deported, and soon all her friends and neighbors want to be part of the Revolution and frown on Lucia's family because they liked Cuba the way it was.
- Seeing Cuba through Lucia's eyes -- a Cuba I didn't know. I think Castro and his beliefs were so much a part of what I learned about Cuba growing up in the 60's, that Lucia opened my eyes to a beautiful place I didn't know about.
- Watching a family be split apart to keep the children safe. The immigration of Lucia and her brother to America where they lived with foster parents in Nebraska. Watching how Lucia and her brother adapted to this new environment, so different from anything they've ever known. It also made me happy to know that there were many generous families like Lucia's foster parents who took in Cuban children until their parents could hopefully get here themselves.
- The friendship between Lucia and her best friend in Cuba, Ivette, is a dynamic one. Reading about the ebbs and flows of their relationship will greatly interest the reader.
- There are many Spanish words and phrases used in The Red Umbrella. Gonzalez has included a glossary of their pronounciation and meanings at the end of the book.
- The author's note where she shares that her parents and her mother-in-law were children like Lucia and her brother -- "children who were not only separated from their families but also separated from their country and culture." She also shares even more background knowledge for the reader about the events of that time in Cuba.