Book Review – My Brigadista Year, Katherine Paterson

Before I get this review underway, I should probably state upfront that it was hard to give My Brigadista Year an impartial assessment. My parents, as I’ve mentioned before, are Cuban immigrants – and while they’ve lived in the US for most of their lives now, my friends have jokingly referred to Miami as Cuba: The Sequel. The Cuban refugee community thrived, sure, but it never forgot what it lost. Families were separated, sometimes for good. Homes were lost, life savings and precious heirlooms surrendered, careers rendered null and void. My grandmother, a university educated physics teacher, would have to find work in a canning factory to get by. But I guess that wasn’t so bad – my friend Monica’s grandfather was executed by firing squad. At least my grandparents made it through alive.

My Brigadista Year is the story of Lora, a young teen who signs up to teach campesinos to read and write as part of Fidel Castro’s literacy program. Lora is an idealistic 14 year old whose passion for teaching shines through. As uncomfortable as the subject matter made me, Lora won me over – I had to admire her dedication and tenacity. Paterson does a great job of depicting the ups and downs of Lora’s experience, from her joy as her students learn to write their own names to the fear of retaliation from insurgents camped out in the mountains. That said, the text occasionally felt a little stilted – while the book is marketed as middle grade, I thought it could easily be read by younger children. Not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

It’s no Bridge to Terabithia, but I think Paterson accomplished what she set out to do – capture the excitement of a new day both for Lora and for Cuba as a nation. It would’ve been nice if Paterson had done a better job of depicting the negative aspects of the Castro regime instead of waxing poetic on the positive. At one point, military men capture and execute insurgents near the town in which Lora is teaching. This is sort of glanced over, and Lora doesn’t think about it for very long. Perhaps, I thought, Paterson was somehow unaware of Castro’s dictatorial tendencies. Only in the Author’s Note, she makes it clear that she was. While she notes that the book isn’t intended to act as a “full or balanced account” of the early days of Castro’s regime, she acknowledges that he strengthened his hold over Cuba by jailing and executing dissidents. Freedom of speech? Not a thing, so much. My father at the age of 13 was nearly arrested for requesting a banned book at a bookstore. My father at the age of 13 was kind of a smartass. This was the incident that prompted my grandparents to make the move to the US, where my father would eventually meet my mother. It’s probably one of the great ironies of my life that I might not exist if it weren’t for a banned book.

Overall, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with My Brigadista Year. I’d like to think that I went into it with an open mind, and there were aspects of the book that I honestly enjoyed – seeing Lora’s students’ happiness at being able to read and write was really magical. But at the end of the day, what they were being taught to read and write was Communist propaganda. And that’s kind of difficult to look past. I rated this book 2/5 stars, an “It’s Okay” by Goodreads standards, which I think was a fitting assessment.

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