McCoy's unaffected, conversational debut sketches a year and a half in the life of Verdita Ortiz-Santiago, a Puerto Rican girl whose fascination with America overshadows her quiet life. The book opens in 1961, with Verdita's 11th birthday party, perhaps her last occasion of guileless joy. An indulged only child, Verdita gets a shock when, a few months later, she learns that her parents are expecting a baby: “I hated it, the baby.... And I despised them for making it.” Her fears that the baby will be a boy force her to confront the deeply patriarchal society in which she lives; she also uses the opportunity, in a more typical fashion, to aim all her anger and confusion at her mother (proud of her growing breasts, she's also ashamed of “becoming more like Mama”). Though McCoy's lyrical writing is absorbing, Verdita's trials are largely unexceptional (including a disastrous attempt to go blonde and taking on more responsibility, especially after the baby's birth), and her parents are underdeveloped, making this coming-of-age story a slight addition to the crowded genre. (Aug.)
School Library Journal
Adult/High School—Maria Flores Ortiz-Santiago, known to her family and friends as Verdita, has spent 11 happy years in her peaceful Puerto Rico neighborhood. One night, she witnesses her parents making love, and her world irrevocably changes. She cannot look her mother in the eye after seeing her in such an exposed position. It takes months, a botched bleached-blond hairdo, and her mother's near death in childbirth before Verdita begins to understand her parents' love for one another and for her. The book is ripe with the lush island's landscape, culture, and foods, as well as the political upheaval of the 1960s. Verdita's experience, though, is universal, as she must reconcile both the passion she witnesses and the changes in her own body with a child's perspective of the world. McCoy's intoxicating novel is perfect for multicultural literature classes and best compares with Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Knopf, 1994) and Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (Penguin, 1992).—Sarah Krygier, Fairfield Civic Center Library, CA
From the Publisher
This touching coming-of-age debut novel transcends borders and times. Readers will laugh and cry along with Verdita as she navigates a tumultuous adolescence, easily identifying with her problems and struggles. As a result, the novel will appeal to a wide range of readers, and the addition of discussion questions is a plus for book groups."
- Library Journal review
"The book is ripe with the lush island's landscape, culture, and foods, as well as the political upheaval of the 1960s. Verdita's experience, though, is universal, as she must reconcile both the passion she witnesses and the changes in her own body with a child's perspective of the world. McCoy's intoxicating novel is perfect for multicultural literature classes and best compares with Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Knopf, 1994) and Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (Penguin, 1992)."
- School Library Journal review
“Beautiful…steeped in Puerto Rican culture and rich in authentic detail, McCoy’s debut captures the essence of life in Puerto Rico.”
"McCoy's lyrical writing is absorbing"
- Publishers Weekly review
"Sarah McCoy tells a story of magic, myth, and mystery amid political and cultural unrest. You can't help loving Verdita, the world she comes from and the world she yearns for. A delightful debut by a promising and saucy new writer."
- Sheri Reynolds, author of A Gracious Plenty and Oprah's Book Club Rapture of Canaan
"Like snow in Puerto Rico, this novel is a rare pleasure. A sparkling debut by a writer who possesses a feel for place and time, a sense of the sacrifices love calls us to, and an uncommon talent for mapping the territory of the heart."
- Janet Peery, author of Alligator Dance and National Book Award Finalist The River Beyond the World
"Sarah McCoy has written a story so replete with sensuality, so infused with love and community, so exquisitely observant and poetic, the reader can only wish for a package tour to the dream that is Verdita's life."
- Sandra Scofield, author of Occasions of Sin and National Book Award Finalist Beyond Deserving
Read an Excerpt
For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas. He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins. On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips. Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose. Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep. Mamá and I did, too. She sat beside me under Papi’s snow until we shivered and held each other close to warm back up.
After the balls were chiseled into a pile of white, we poured passionfruit syrup over it and ate right from the bowl. The sweet flakes made my mouth cold and itchy, and I had to suck my lips to warm my tongue. We couldn’t eat it all, though; it turned to a puddle under the sun. Papi said snow did that, changed into everyday water. I’d never been in a snowfall before. I didn’t know.
That night, the first heat wave of the season swept over the island and nobody could sleep. I lay in bed, the outside
fever making my underwear dig into my skin and itch.
“Papi, tell me a story,” I said. Miserable, I wanted the everyday to shift to dreams.
“You’re too old for stories now. Why don’t I read about Jacob and Isaac?” Mamá liked it best when he read from the Bible at bedtime. She believed it would help me dream good things. Papi took a seat in my bamboo chair. The ceiling fan clicked around- around. “Or maybe Daniel in the lion’s den?” He winked at me.
When I was little, I had a crush on the brave and mighty Daniel who played with lions. Mamá disapproved. She said that it wasn’t right for someone to have romantic feelings for a dead man, never mind a dead holy man. Papi said it was better Daniel of the Bible than Roberto Confresi, the pirate.
“Can’t I hear the story of my name?” I asked.
In Puerto Rico, everybody had two names. One was printed on a birth certificate. Another was the one you were
called, the name you answered to, and that name always came with a story. Mamá’s birth certificate said “Monaique.”
Papi’s said “Juan.” But nobody called them that because those names had no story.
They called Papi Faro, “Light house,” because as a child he loved to watch the flashing light on Aguadilla Beach. My
abuela, Mamá Juanita, said they often went to Aguadilla to visit her brother’s family. On one par tic u lar visit, the family stayed up late listening to troubadour songs, and just before bed, Mamá Juanita noticed that Papi wasn’t with
the group. Everyone searched the house, but he was gone. Then, from the kitchen window, she saw a small, soft hump sitting outside on the beach rock. It was Papi. He stared out toward the sea, watching the light house beam slice the black again and again. When she asked what he was doing, he said, “Keeping watch.” Mamá Juanita called him Little Faro, and the nickname stuck.
They called my mamá Venusa because as a girl she nearly drowned while surfing the northwest coast of Puerto
Rico. Papi told me how a wave rolled over and pulled her down to the coral bottom. The Ocean King saw her there,
her black hair streaking the blue, and thought her so lovely that he decided to change her into a mermaid. The seaweed wrapped her legs and the coral caged her. Mamá prayed for a miracle—to return to our island. Then, just
when she thought her skin would change to scales, a rush of water pushed her from the King’s prison, up through
the blue- green, until her eyes saw the sun and her skin sparkled pink. She’d been gone so long that everyone believed her dead, lost to the ocean world. But she was reborn, like the goddess Venus.
Those were the stories we lived by. Who my parents were, who I was. My birth certificate said “Maria Flores Ortiz- Santiago,” but they called me Verdita. Papi kept all our certificates on the shelf in his study beside three dead
roosters with black marble eyes. The names were as lifeless as the cocks with their sawdust guts. Only our nicknames
were alive. Papi told my story best.
He leaned back in the chair. “Venusa, Verdita wants to hear her story again.”
From the kitchen where Mamá scrubbed the scales off codfish, she laughed. “She’s like you. Head in the clouds.”
But I was glad to be like Papi. Mamá wasn’t a good storyteller. She forgot parts or added things from the priest’s
sermons. Papi always remembered it right and always began the same way.
He closed the Bible. “Your story started long before you left your mamá’s body, before you took your first breath. Your soul spoke to me from heaven.” I curled up my toes and closed my eyes, concentrating on Papi’s words.
In a dream, Papi stood alone on a strange and colorful beach, unlike any in Puerto Rico. The ocean was unusually
calm, and the air was silent except for the lull of the breeze through the coconut palms. No lick of seaweed or burrow of crayfish—the sand sparkled in rainbow pebbles. In the distance was Mamá, her wavy hair caught in the breeze, black against the light. Papi went to her.
I imagined the beach like the photograph I kept in the crack of my mirror. In it, Mamá stood between bright
umbrellas and candy-colored towels, a beach carnival. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, and I could hear
laughter through the glossy paper. On the back was written Visit to Orlando and Lita Virginia Beach, 1950. It was taken just before she got pregnant with me, just before Papi had his dream.
He leaned forward in the chair. “And just as I reached her, I heard a burst of water. A sea spout lifted some fifty feet in the air. So high that I had to shield my eyes against the brightness of the sky and the white surf. I was afraid it was the Ocean King come for Venusa at last. But she turned and smiled. She knew what I didn’t. From the top of the spout, a parrot with emerald feathers and two gleaming green eyes flew from the watery perch and landed on my shoulder.”
I took a deep breath and held it.
“That was your spirit,” Papi continued. “I have never seen such a beautiful bird on earth.”
Papi leaned in and kissed my forehead. I could smell the soap and the little bit of Old Spice aftershave that he used so long ago, when the day was first born. I breathed him in.
In my story, Mamá had a handful of sesame seeds, and she fed them to the parrot until it was full. Then it took
flight, spreading its emerald wings in the coconut breeze, up, up into the cloudless blue. It left behind a single green
feather. Papi tucked it in the front of his shirt for safekeeping, but when he woke from the dream, it was gone.
“And I was searching the bed looking everywhere for the feather when your mamá came into the room with a cup of café con leche. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her that I had lost something important. That’s when
she told me she was going to have a baby. You were inside her. And I knew the parrot in my dream was you.”
At this point in my story, I always got sleepy. My sheets hugged my body; my pillow cupped my head. I closed my
eyes but listened still.
“I told your mamá about the dream and she agreed. God must have put me on the shore of heaven so you could
come to us.”
I buried my face deeper into the darkness.
“The day you were born, I walked outside our house and noticed the whoosh of the breeze through the palms,
just like in my dream. Mamá’s water broke. She was in labor. We thought you were a boy at first—all the troubles
she had. I had to take her to the hospital in San Juan because the barrio midwife was busy delivering two other
children, and I knew she could not deliver alone.
“I sat outside of the operating room, waiting and watching for the doctor. Those were dark hours. But then a nurse came and took me to you. When I held you that first time, you opened your eyes and looked into mine. Big green eyes. Verde. Just like the parrot. And I knew we had met before. My Verdita.”
Sleep washed over me like one of the waves on Papi’s dream beach, soft and soundless.
From the Trade Paperback edition.