Havana Dreams

Caroline Knapp reviews 'Havana Dreams' by Wendy Gimbel

Topics: Books,

“In the best of times,” writes Wendy Gimbel, “history is gentle; in Cuba, it has been harsh, severe.” This simple statement belies a more complex truth — that history has a defining potency, forming the most essential core of emotional experience; that we are, at heart, where we live — and Gimbel brings the harshest aspects of that belief to light in “Havana Dreams,” her evocative, compassionate story of the way three generations of Cuban women were affected by Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Gimbel’s interest in the subject is deeply personal: As an infant, she was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother, a Cuban matron who took her on annual visits to her family in Santiago, a place that would linger in her memory as blessed and idyllic, where “the children chased each other in tiled patios filled with sunlight, and ate the sour-sweet fruit that hung from the mamoncillo branches.” When she returned to the country as an adult, in 1991, she witnessed firsthand the way a single political event — Castro’s revolution — could shape ordinary lives, altering the very texture of human experience: She saw emotional structures crumbled, family ties severed, friends and relatives driven into exile. The themes that had shaped her own early life — abandonment, disillusionment, trauma — were writ large on this tiny island, and Gimbel set out to understand what had happened: how historical context, both personal and political, could so inform us.

She tells this story through three women whose lives span the 20th century on the island: Naty Revuelta, born in 1925, a wealthy, restless socialite during the Batista era, who became Castro’s lover just before his ascension to power; Naty’s mother, an unrepentant reactionary named Doqa Nacita, who lives almost entirely in the past; and Naty’s daughter, Alina, who is Castro’s illegitimate, unacknowledged child.



In Gimbel’s hands, their lives become an intimate historical document, one that illuminates the intersection between a woman’s internal and external worlds. The story of Naty is an allegory of Castro’s failed promise, of “the ruin of the revolution.” Passionate and rebellious, coming of age at a time of social upheaval, Naty sacrificed both her marriage and her future happiness on the altar of his ideology, only to be discarded when she no longer served his purposes. Doqa Nacita, strong-willed and materialistic, reflects the protected, rarefied Cuba of the past. She grew up at a time when “men sought adventure and women settled for the protections of a good marriage.” Castro’s revolution stripped her of the wealth and social status that formed the core of her identity, leaving her culturally estranged, embittered, longing for the luxuries of the past. Alina, born in 1956, suffered the most obvious emotional damage. Volatile and troubled, she was conceived in a desperate bid by Naty to seal her own connection to Castro, and she emerges as the product of an angry world: bitter, unable to connect with others, self-destructive.

Gimbel recounts these women’s stories with insight, heart and a decided lack of judgment. Any one of them would be easy to stereotype — the rebel mom, the reactionary grandma, the twisted child of the revolution — but Gimbel, a graceful and precise writer, so carefully evokes the particulars of their lives, and so deftly interweaves their tale with the larger story of Cuba’s social and political transformation, that what emerges instead is a rich and varied portrait, one that remains true to its mission. It is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a story of Cuba; it is also an achingly human tale about false promises, the blinding power of passion, the life-altering failures of family.

Caroline Knapp is the author of "Drinking: A Love Story." Her most recent book is "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>