New Yorker Paul Volponi's many award-winning novels for teens and young readers are known for their fast-paced, accessible style. Here he shares how the photograph of a floating 1959 Buick inspired his new YA novel, Game Seven.
Some photographs are electrifying. Viewing one that particularly touches you can be like getting hit with a bolt of creative lightning, stirring feelings deep inside a writer’s heart and imagination. That’s how my latest young adult novel, Game Seven, was inspired. I saw a photo of a green 1959 Buick floating into Key West, Florida. It had been transformed into a car/boat by Cuban refugees who were willing to risk their lives on a 90-mile journey to freedom on the open sea. The vision of the young men sitting on the car’s roof completely captivated me. I wanted to write the story of how they’d arrived at that moment, or at least my vision of how it happened.
The photograph of a floating
I had long been moved by the flight of Cuban baseball players defecting to the U.S. to play in our Major Leagues. A handful of them, such as Yasiel Puig (LA Dodgers), Yoenis Cespedes (Detroit Tigers) and Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox), sign lucrative contracts and become famous big-leaguers. But all of them, all-stars or not, leave behind loved ones in less desirable circumstances. And those loved ones often pay the price for that defection, being mistreated by an angered and embarrassed Cuban government. Game Seven is about someone who was left behind—a son now grown-up and escaping to the U.S. to find his famous baseball-playing father.
Julio Ramirez Jr. was 10 years old when his father, Cuba’s great pitcher, defected while playing for the Cuban National team during an exhibition in the States. Now 16, Julio Jr. is considered Cuba’s best young shortstop. However, he’s been told by baseball officials that he’ll never receive a chance to play at the highest level, on Cuba’s National traveling team (The Nacionales), because of his father’s actions.
Was Julio’s Papi being a hero when he defected for freedom and baseball? Or was Papi being selfish, leaving Julio, his mother and younger sister in poverty, as he signed a multimillion-dollar deal to pitch for the Miami Marlins?
Back then, every kid I knew was jealous of me. That’s because baseball is practically a religion in my country. And Papi walked through the streets of our hometown, Matanzas, like a god, with me trailing behind him. . . . Fans called him El Fuego—for his blazing fastball which no batter could touch. The only way Papi could have been more respected was if he’d been a general in the military or a high-ranking government official. But most of that respect would have come out of fear.
Set against the backdrop of the World Series, as the Marlins take on the Yankees, Julio must consider the same decision as Papi when a chance arises for him, along with his uncle and cousin, to defect in the transformed Buick.
I interviewed many native Cubans and researched the details of ocean defections to make Game Seven as realistic as possible. And I’m pleased to have this novel published at a time when the question of our relationship with Cuba is once again swirling in the winds of debate.
Author photo by April Volponi.