About Shirley

My husband Dr. Joseph Langer, myself, Shirley Langer, and our four children spent almost five years in Cuba in the mid-sixties. Dr. Langer, an orthopaedic surgeon, set up an intern and residency training program in orthopaedic surgery, while I worked as a translator and ESL teacher. This was only a few years after the country-wide literacy campaign which UNESCO declared to be the single most successful literacy program to date. I learned that in 1960, 25% of Cuba’s six million people were totally illiterate: one million adults and half a million school age children. In the short space of seven months in 1961, the national campaign reduced illiteracy from 25% to 3.9%. Over 700,000 adults learned to read and write ending nearly 500 years of successive generations being Cuba’s forgotten people.

My respect for education, books, and the power of literacy propelled me to find out how such a feat had been accomplished. Clearly, the newly-installed revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro understood, that regardless of political orientation, education is the single most important tool to effect change. The most remarkable element of the campaign were the volunteer teachers―over 100,000 teenagers―the average age being fifteen―  volunteered to go and live with and teach the illiterate families. Called brigadistas (members of a brigade), they were assigned to teach in isolated rural dwellings, towns, tiny villages and remote places in the mountains. Some brigadistas received a week or two of teaching instruction. They went forth with two changes of army-type clothing, a pair of boots, a Che Guevara style beret, a hammock, a wool blanket, some flimsy workbooks, a teachers manual and a Coleman-style kerosene lantern since there was no electricity where many were assigned. What they had a surplus of was youthful health and energy, enthusiasm and the will to overcome all obstacles in order to make their country “a territory free from illiteracy”.  Do it they did, and the result of their efforts was to transform a people and their country forever.

I didn’t write the story of that remarkable campaign right away when I returned to Canada. I raised my family, got a university degree in Spanish/Italian Language and Literature from QUEEN’S University, translated some of Robert Munsch’s books for children into Spanish, served as Mayor of the City of Belleville, and wrote a book of short stories about Tofino, a remote village on Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast where I lived for fifteen years. The idea to write Anita’s Revolution dawned gradually as I became aware of the numbers of Canadians who are illiterate or functionally illiterate, and how that diminishes their lives and affects the creativity and productivity of our own Canadian society. Rather than write an article for a magazine or an academic paper, I decided to write an historical fiction novel. Following the completion of research, including interviews with many of the campaign’s volunteer teachers now in their sixties and seventies, I created the novel’s protagonist, a young teenage volunteer teacher named Anita. Through this young girl and her experiences, we experience the daunting challenges of those seven months, challenges that were faced in a 100,000 different ways by each of those 100,000 brigadistas. Fifty years have passed since Cuba proudly declared itself  “A Territory Free From Illiteracy”. According to UNESCO, it still is. Currently, Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.9%! Surely Canada should be able to say the same.

It is my hope that people are not put off by the setting of the novel: Cuba, and all the political baggage invoked by that small island and its leadership. Rather I hope that people will see what good can be done within a country if there is the political and social will, and what youth is capable of if given the opportunity and confidence of their elders. Anita’s Revolution, above all, honours youth and celebrates the power of education to transform.