Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Memoir Review: Waiting for Snow in Havana

“The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.”

That’s the beginning of Carlos Eire’s remarkable memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winner. His story begins on January 1, 1959, when President Batista fled from Cuba and a new leader, Fidel Castro, was suddenly in charge. With plenty of flash-backs and flash-forwards, Eire writes of his childhood in Cuba, both before and after the revolution.

Although the historical context is critical to the story, the first part of the book focuses on Carlos’ childhood before the revolution: the memories of a little boy (he was eight in 1959) running around the neighborhood with his brother and friends. He shares stories of their adventures – stories much like those of any young boy – against the backdrop of a tropical paradise. There are tales of ultra-rich friends who live in mansions; stories of flying kites, swimming at the beach, and setting off firecrackers with his friends; and admissions of a terrible fear and loathing of the ever-present lizards.

In some ways, though, Carlos’ childhood was unusual. His father, a judge, firmly believed that he had been Louis XVI in a past life and that his wife was Marie Antionette. He is sometimes full of fun, taking the boys on exciting outings around Havana, and other times absent and uncaring, obsessed with his collection of arts and antiques.

While I enjoyed the tales of childhood joys and struggles, the book becomes much more fascinating as the revolution unfolds. Eire describes the changes that occur in his neighborhood, his school, and his country from a child’s perspective, sometimes flashing forward to relate to what happened from his adult point of view. Eventually, when it becomes apparent that Cuba is changing in dramatic and dangerous ways, Carlos’ mother makes arrangements for he and his brother to flee to the United States (it was easier for children to leave than adults). So, in 1962, eleven-year old Carlos sees Cuba for the last time from his airplane seat, leaving behind everything and everyone he knows, except for his brother.

We also learn, in bits and pieces, about what happened to Carlos and his brother after they arrived in the United States and how the author grew up to be the man he is today, but the focus of the book is on those first eleven years in Cuba, how they helped form his view of the world and of himself.

I enjoyed this book very much and passed it along to my husband, who’s reading it now. Not everyone in my book group liked it as much as I did, but we all agreed that we learned a lot, and we certainly had plenty to talk about during our discussion of the book. Some felt that the first part of the book was too much like any childhood memoir, but I happen to like childhood memoirs, so I enjoyed that, as well as the second half of the book. I learned a lot about Cuba and Castro’s revolution – I had no idea that 14,000 Cuban children had been airlifted out of Cuba to the United States at that time – but I also enjoyed the author’s reflections on how his boyhood shaped the adult he is now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cuba’s revolution after reading this book, you might also enjoy the movie, The Lost City, set during the same time period.

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