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This heart-warming story is about Bella, a 13-year-old girl in Tampa, Florida, in the 1930s. Her grandfather is a lector at a cigar factory, which means he reads fiction, newspapers, and union news to the workers as they roll cigars. Being a lector is an important role in their Cuban American immigrant community. But the hard times of the Depression mean that Bella must go to work in the factory. Her hope of getting the education a lector needs seems impossible....
This heart-warming story is about Bella, a 13-year-old girl in Tampa, Florida, in the 1930s. Her grandfather is a lector at a cigar factory, which means he reads fiction, newspapers, and union news to the workers as they roll cigars. Being a lector is an important role in their Cuban American immigrant community. But the hard times of the Depression mean that Bella must go to work in the factory. Her hope of getting the education a lector needs seems impossible.
“William Durbin’s attention to detail–both historical and fictional–make him one of today’s masters of historical YA fiction.”—David Gill, ALAN/National Council of Teachers of English
Ybor City, Florida
The Paradise Tree
The paradise tree above Bella Lorente's head was as wide as it was tall, spreading its green canopy over the roof of the El Para'so cigar factory. Bella sat on the lawn below the open windows of the second-floor workroom and listened as her grandfather read to the workers who were rolling cigars. It was Saturday, and the March sun was warm. Grandfather's resonant voice carried out over the wind-rippled grass.
Behind the factory a dozen brightly colored kites flew over an open field. Bella heard her younger brother Pedro and his friends laughing as they unreeled their strings and steered their homemade kites higher. The larger kites, made out of red, green, and blue tissue paper, hung in perfect balance in the magical blue sky, their white tails swishing from side to side. The smaller kites, like Pedro's, made from plain brown paper, dipped and veered as they rode the gusty wind.
Bella turned her attention to Grandfather's reading. As El Para'so's lector, Roberto Garc'a sat on an elevated platform in the main workroom for four hours each day and entertained two hundred cigar rollers by reading news, literature, and politics. One of Ybor City's most respected lectores, Grandfather always wore a white suit coat, a white shirt with gold cuff links, a silktie, and dark pants.
Grandfather's performances were so popular that women from the neighborhood, many with babies in their arms, walked to the factory at midday and spread their blankets on the lawn to listen. Today, Bella and two dozen women sat quietly, their faces marked by leaf shadows and their eyes intent on the story of Don Quixote de La Mancha.
"What a gift Se-or Garc'a has," a young mother whispered to Bella. "It's not so much what he says as how he says it. So many lectores use microphones these days, but feel the fuerzo de grito-the strength of his voice! Every reading is like music."
Bella smiled. She'd heard Grandfather read the story of Quixote's quest before, but she never tired of the funny, sad tale. Grandfather was reading the famous passage where Quixote charges a windmill. Mistaking the blades for the arms of a giant, the nearsighted knight lowers his lance and spurs his horse forward. Grandfather's voice mirrored the pounding of the hooves, the creaking of the windmill arms; and Bella heard the cigar workers chuckle as the knight toppled from his saddle.
When Grandfather closed his book there was a moment of silence. Then one worker slapped his chaveta, his rounded cigar knife, on the wooden workbench. Soon two hundred blades were clapping down in appreciation and filling the factory hall with a dull thunder.
Bella left the picnic basket she'd prepared for Grandfather under the tree and hurried upstairs to the workroom. Grandfather stood and bowed to the cigar makers. A shock of silver hair fell onto his forehead, and the ends of his salt-and-pepper mustache turned up in the hint of a smile. When the noise of the chavetas faded and the workers pushed back their chairs for the lunch break, Grandfather put on his Panama hat and stepped down from his oak lectern.
"Good afternoon, Bella." Grandfather beamed. "Welcome to paradise."
"Calling this factory El Para'so doesn't make it paradise." Bella wrinkled her nose at the clouds of blue cigar smoke that filled the hall.
"So the smell of damp tobacco and cigars is not your idea of heaven?" Grandfather said.
A cigar maker tipped his hat to Grandfather as he walked past. "A fine reading, Se-or Garc'a," he said. The rollers were skilled craftsmen who regarded Grandfather as a fellow artist.
"Gracias." Grandfather nodded to the man.
Bella waved the smoke from her face. "I'm glad you don't smoke." Most workers smoked at their benches and took three cigars home each evening, but Grandfather never used tobacco.
"I need to protect my voice. But don't forget that cigar money fills your soup pot at home."
"Mama's job is doing laundry."
"And where do you suppose her customers dirty their clothes?" Grandfather motioned toward the rows of benches, their tops stained dark from tobacco leaves. Then he offered his arm to Bella. "Shall we dine on the lawn today, se-orita?"
As they stepped outside, Grandfather looked up at the clusters of tiny yellow blossoms on the paradise tree. "Now will you admit that we have entered paradise?"
"The flowers are beautiful," Bella said, admiring the delicate petals that swayed in the breeze and gave off a sweet perfume. Bella had played under the paradise tree from the time she was a little girl. Its broad crown of waxy, pink-veined leaves shaded the lawn and the factory windows in deep green.
Bella spread out a blanket while Grandfather held the picnic basket. "What treats do we have today?" He lifted a corner of the white cloth.
"Cold soup," Bella said, "and fresh bread from Ferlita's."
"You made gazpacho Andaluz!" Grandfather smiled as he sat down. "A feast fit for the gods."
Bella didn't care for the Spanish tomato soup, but it was Grandfather's favorite lunch. Though Bella was only thirteen, she'd been helping Mama with the housework and doing her part in caring for the four younger children since she was eleven. That was the year her papa, Domingo, had been killed on a tobacco-buying trip in Cuba. He and Grandfather had planned to start a cigar factory called Garc'a & Lorente. Papa had their life savings with him on the day he was robbed and murdered.
Grandfather broke off a piece of bread and sniffed the crust. Then he tasted the soup. "ADelicioso!" He touched his napkin to his lips. "This soup would make Pijuan jealous."
Bella smiled. Pijuan was the head chef at the Columbia, the finest restaurant in Ybor. Since Grandfather didn't cook, he often ate there.
"What's in the newspapers today?" she asked. Grandfather subscribed to La Gaceta and La Traduccion, as well as two English papers, which he translated into Spanish and read to the workers.
"The usual trouble. Riots in Madrid. Martial law declared in Lima. But local matters worry me most."
"You mean the Tobacco Workers International Union vote?"
"Yes," Grandfather said. "If the TWIU wins, the Anglo business owners are threatening to form a citizens' committee. That would give a free hand to the vigilantes who want to crush the cigar makers' union. And you know, the Ku Klux Klan will keep attacking the union and the Negroes."
"Could it get as bad as last year?"
"Let's hope not."
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from El Lector by William Durbin Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 2, 2012
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