Reviews

 

 

Shirley Langer’s deep and abiding knowledge of Cuba since the mid-1960s has resulted in a marvelous young adult novel, Anita’s Revolution, recalling Castro’s literacy campaign of the early 1960s when school children were sent into the countryside to teach one million illiterate Cubans how to read and write. Some were killed by counter-revolutionaries. Cuba’s literacy rate today is almost 100%.

 

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A review, by Linda Rodgers

In these days of economic and cultural uncertainty and social media dominance, the book industry is dominated by caution. Is it sexy? Will it sell? Is the author’s face advertising friendly? Such questions are all too common editorial litany. Some books are too important to ignore and they require special dedication (the wings of angels) if they are going to find their moment. Such is the case of Anita’s Revolution, a narrative which should resonate with many young men and women approaching their wandering years.

Langer lived and worked in Cuba for five years in the Sixties, just after the revolution that freed the island nation from colonialism, despotism—the exploitation of the pearl of the Antilles by the Spanish and American governments and organized crime. We don’t need to remind ourselves that freedom is fragile. The new regime began with the nationalization of property and elimination of racial discrimination The first step in strengthening the oppressed campesinos of Cuba, many of them descendents of slaves brought to harvest the sugar cane, was literacy. Literacy is power, the power to learn and the opportunity to make critical life choices. This was and is a top priority in Cuba whose children enjoy one of the finest educational systems in the world. No child left behind.

In 1961, two years after the revolution, the new government declared their intention to create a territorio libre de analfabetismo – a territory free from illiteracy – and organized an army of volunteers to eliminate illiteracy. In an unprecedented rite of passage, thousands of teens and pre-teens left the comfort of their homes and schools to reverse the plague of illiteracy, while nearly one million Cubans of all ages, the eldest 106, waited for the power of language to lift them out of poverty and despair.

Adolescence is a time of extremes. As they lurch into the gap years between dependence and independence, young adults identify with their peers and with ideals their parents have compromised. Fidel and his compadres chose an ideal teacher group, as this army of friends got their first taste of personal freedom and developed their sense of self-worth.

The protagonist, Anita, is part of the privileged upper middle class of the old Havana. Her father is a liberal newspaper editor, an enlightened friend of the revolution, but still in the days before total US embargo and Russian intervention. His family was still enjoying a standard of living completely foreign to many Cubans. Idealism is Anita’s birthright and the prevailing social environment. She and her brother are determined to become brigadistas, volunteers in the army of literacy teachers in spite of the counter-revolution and their parents’ understandable fear for their safety. Like many of her peers, Anita chooses to rebel and help at the same time, strengthening not only herself but also the future of Cuba, which has had to be resolute in the face of adversity.

Langer, who knew Cuba intimately during this unique time when the forces of change and resistance led to uncivil war when even the army of children were persecuted by those who feared social change, has written Anita’s narrative with the authenticity it requires. She knows the back-story, has absorbed the empirical setting and interviewed the real characters in her documentary novel. This book feels like Cuba.

Others have written about Cuba, a country which captures the heart and the imagination with its lush diversities of culture and potential and its heartbreaking persecution by colonial powers, but this is a special book because it is written for an audience that needs to hear that it has permission to heal a broken world. Anita, who is candid about her weaknesses, is strength. She opposes her parents to do what is right even when it seems wrong. Her journey is dangerous but ultimately rewarding as she engages the true meaning of family.

Would that all adolescents had similar opportunities in the wandering time. A recent study shows that children who question parental authority have more strength of character in making appropriate personal decisions. Anita’s story supports the notion that the greatest privilege we can afford young men and women is the opportunity to risk doing good and learning their own potential. Anita lost nothing by taking a year out of her studies, and she gained the world. Now, half a century later, she and the hundreds of thousands can look back and say they made the revolution a reality that changed the lives of millions.
UNESCO has designated Cuba, a country with a poet as one of its great national heroes, almost 100% literate.

I recently told an audience of young Cubans at the University of Havana that, contrary to what they might hear in the American media, they were the advantaged youth generation because they already knew how to deal with adversity, how to live with less and without contamination of their environment. This is the legacy of the brigadistas.

Within and without Cuba, there is dissent about the great social experiment. No system is perfect, especially one that labours under the boot of American imperialism directed by wealthy Cuban expatriates, the former ruling class. There is no argument though about the educational system which produces exemplary standards. This is a basic human right, one that the children of Cuba earned and one that they continue to cherish. It is the backbone of this slender island. Anita’s story is the story of Cuba libre and a cautionary tale for all who mistake dissent for disrespect. Even though its target audience is young people, perhaps some adults—that would be all parents and teachers— should read Anita’s Revolution as well.

~ Linda Rogers is an advocate for the rights of children and an afficianada of Cuba. Her book Friday Water, a Cuba-Canada love story, is set in the time following the Special Period.

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A review, by Christine Lowther

My grandmother had such a high regard for Fidel Castro that her daughter, my aunt, once mimicked his signature on a framed 8×11 photo of him as a kind of sweethearted joke and gave it to Gram for her birthday. Now that she’s gone, the signed picture remains on display in my aunt’s bathroom in Surrey (at least during family gatherings) as a memento of her mother, who never went to Cuba.

So I was excited to read Shirley Langer’s new book about an inspiring chapter in Cuba’s history. What was so good about Castro and his new Cuba anyway? Langer describes how, in 1961, children and teenagers transformed their country, volunteering to travel to its poorest areas and teach entire families – one million people – to read and write. Nation-wide illiteracy was reduced from 25% to 3.9%. Has any other country achieved such a positive metamorphosis, in just one year?

Yet Anita’s Revolution is a novel, a historical novel aimed primarily at youth. This makes for easy reading, as does Langer’s clean writing skills. What further qualifies Langer to write this story is her own past; she herself lived and worked in Cuba for almost five years during the mid-sixties.

The book begins with a map and a brief, fascinating history of Cuba which situates us right where Anita’s tale begins. As a reader I felt like I was about to enter those times myself. My eyes were glued to the page. And that feeling never left.

We get to know Anita, age 14, her brother and her parents, and the struggle she and brother Mario go through to persuade their mother and father to let them volunteer as literacy brigadistas. We also meet the family’s servants and learn a little about class differences right away. We discover the threats involved in teaching, when young volunteers are murdered by anti-revolutionaries. Anita herself is in danger many times … but I don’t want to give too much away.

There are new friends, crowded rallies, speeches from Fidel, eye-opening changes in Anita’s way of life when she goes to live with her learner family, even romance. There are songs, diary entries, letters back and forth, goodbyes and difficult transitions. Nineteen photographs are included.

Two out of the three-member learner family are deeply reluctant to study reading or writing: the women of this poor, extremely hard-working rural unit. They were so busy already and could see no alternative direction in their futures. Anita’s struggle with these individuals, and in general with being a maestra, a teacher, is always moving and riveting.

This book by Tofino Time’s own long-time column writer and author of Road’s End: Tales of Tofino has produced a delightful read for youth and adult here. We are taken out of North America and our high standards of living to experience a truly constructive, even miraculous movement for change in a country that may be far away but shares this planet with us.

~ Christine Lowther is the author of Half-Blood Poems, My Nature, New Power, A Cabin In Clayoquot, and co-editor of Writing the West Coast: In Love With Place and Living Artfully: Reflections from the Far West Coast.

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Reviewed in CM: CANADIAN REVIEW OF MATERIALS 

In January of 1959, Fidel Castro became the prime minister of Cuba, leading a revolution that would redefine the Cuban economy and challenge the Cuban people to forego racial discrimination, private ownership of land and private enterprise. 1961 found Castro determined to wipe out illiteracy. He recruited thousands of middle class teenagers to become teachers (brigadistas) and sent them out to transform the lives of the poorest Cubans.

In Anita’s Revolution, 15-year-old Anita takes up Castro’s challenge. Leaving the comforts of a well-off, loving home, Anita is sent into the countryside to teach Ramon, his wife Clara and her sister Zenaida how to read and write. But first of all she has to gain their trust by joining in the day-to-day life of these poor people. Anita looks after pigs and chickens and beats laundry on the rocks of a nearby river. In spite of her pupils’ trepidation (not to mention their exhaustion), Anita manages to begin lessons, instill confidence and shepherd her small group through the first of three tests. Counter-revolutionaries are active in the region, threatening the brigadistas, and finally Anita is kidnapped by them. Rescued after four terrifying days, Anita stays on until she has finished the teaching and can proudly fly the flag of literacy from the Perez home. At the end of the year, all the teachers enter Havana on a special train for a massive celebration, and Anita returns home to her anxious family.

Anita is a strong character, clearly caught up in revolutionary teenage fervour and determined to make a difference in the new Cuba. At the same time, she is unsure of herself and loves her protective parents dearly, finally persuading them to sign her consent form by inviting over an influential neighbour, Marjorie, who is taking her own daughters to the countryside to teach. Anita uses her brief teacher training and tools well but also adapts her lessons so the family will engage in them willingly. She endures vicious heat, hard manual labour, and the premature birth of Clara’s daughter, and she begins to realize how privileged her own family is. Anita moves from a sweet, somewhat spoiled girl to a thoughtful, inspired young woman who is committed to building a new Cuba.

Secondary characters, especially Ramon, Clara and Zenaida, are well-rounded and poignant. Ramon’s sense of humour and his determination despite his age, Clara’s commitment despite her motherly duties, and Zenaida’s switch from sullen scorn to enthusiastic learner will keep readers’ attention. The confidence and enthusiasm of Marjorie and the other brigadistas is inspiring. Readers will find the numbers of people who became literate in such a short few months to be astounding, and the brigadistas’ achievement will bring the intended readers to tears.

The action is nonstop but interspersed with many letter and diary entries which advance the plot well and enrich the characters. Spanish phrases are well integrated and easy to understand, adding authenticity and colour.

As worthy as elements of the story are, I cannot imagine a child wanting to read this novel, and I am not sure how much one would learn from reading it. I suppose it could be used as a way to talk about neglect and abuse, about the difficulties of being a foster child, and how difficult it is for neglected children to find a voice.

There are nine pages of old photos that illustrate clearly the primitive conditions the brigadistas endured. A map and a brief history of Cuba will clarify for the reader the background of the story.

This historical novel will inspire and enthral young readers who want to make a difference in society.

Recommended.

~ Review by Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg MB bookseller.