A new novel from Katherine Paterson about a fascinating, little-known chapter in Cuban history is reason to celebrate. Paterson—a Library of Congress “Living Legend” and two-time winner of both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award—doesn’t disappoint with her first novel since her husband’s death in 2013.
It’s 1961, and 13-year-old Lora lives with her family in an apartment in Havana. Upon hearing about Fidel Castro’s campaign to make the nation literate in one year, Lora ignores her parents’ concerns and joins an army of young volunteer teachers (more than 250,000) heading into the remote countryside. There Lora and the other “brigadistas” live and work alongside poor families in primitive conditions. Lora gains self-confidence as she learns to love several families, experiencing the challenges and rewards of teaching both children and adults, all while facing grave danger.
Paterson seamlessly brings this tale to life, skillfully weaving in just enough historical detail to give curious readers a sense of the complex historical factors at play (Cubans’ delight and the United States’ displeasure at the fall of Baptista’s corrupt regime), with a helpful timeline of Cuban history. Castro’s bold campaign worked, making Cuba the first illiteracy-free country in the Western Hemisphere.
“We did it, we did it, we did it!” Lora and the brigadistas sing upon their triumphant return to Havana. Lora notes: “We were like an army of sharpened pencils marching into the center of the capital.”
Lora’s brigadista year transformed her life forever, as it did for many actual participants (one of whom is Paterson’s friend). In a wonderful epilogue written years later, after Lora becomes a doctor, she notes: “My country is not perfect, but, then, is yours? . . . No, we are not perfect, but we do have a literate, educated population. We do have doctors.” She adds that many doctors and nurses are heading to West Africa to care for Ebola victims.
As always, Paterson eloquently delivers a fascinating slice of history, then gives her readers important points to ponder, making My Brigadista Year a gloriously timeless story.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Katherine Paterson for My Brigadista Year.