- Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
Behar, Ruth Letters from Cuba. Paulsen/Penguin, 2020 [272p] Trade ed. ISBN 9780525516477 $17.99 E-book ed. ISBN 9780525516484 $10.99 Reviewed from digital galleys Ad Gr. 4-7
Papa had been in Cuba for three years, working to bring his family out of political and economic distress in Poland as Nazis consolidate power. With enough saved to send for the first family member, twelve-year-old Esther convinces her father that she, as the eldest, should be chosen over firstborn son Moshe. Papa assents, and the choice proves to be a good one, as Esther's outgoing personality and quickness to pick up a new language are genuine assets to him as he peddles small items in rural areas; even her domestic skills, long criticized by Mama, blossom when she [End Page 464] unleashes her own creativity, designing and sewing dresses that she sells through a Jewish shopkeeper in Havana. It's her interpersonal skill that is arguably the most valuable, as she makes friends ranging from ex-slaves to the town doctor to Chinese merchants, all of whom band together when Nazi sympathizers, emboldened by Hitler's tyranny abroad, mount an anti-immigrant campaign to rid their island of foreigners. Behar finds inspiration for her novel from the experience of her grandmother Esther, a Jewish immigrant who joined her own father in Cuba in 1927. Fictional Esther seems to have stepped out of a decades-old novel as a kind of good-luck magnet who readily vanquishes trouble with wit, charm, and fortunate breaks. Villainous Nazi wannabe Señor Eduardo caves after a one-day strike on his sugar mill; wealthy ladies in a trendy Havana department store can't get enough of Esther's designs; and even Papa opens his mind and heart to neighbors outside his tight-knit circle of Jewish acquaintances. Readers may eyeroll but still find themselves engaged by a World War II refugee story in an unexpected and underexamined setting. An author's note is included.