The debut novel by New York Times bestselling author Rachel Kushner, called “shimmering” (The New Yorker), “multilayered and absorbing” (The New York Times Book Review), and “gorgeously written” (Kirkus Reviews).
Young Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom—three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child's dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them—the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence.
In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Mazière, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of "yanqui" revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come.
Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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It was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes that morning. An orange rectangle, the color of hot lava, hovering on the wall of my bedroom. It was from the light, which was streaming through the window in a dusty ray, playing on the wall like a slow and quiet movie. Just this strange, orange light. I was sure that at any moment it would vanish, like when a rainbow appears and immediately starts to fade, and you look where you saw it moments before and it's gone, just the faintest color, and even that faint color you might be imagining from the memory of what you just saw.
I went to the window and looked out. The sky was a hazy violet, like the color of the delicate skin under Mother's eyes, half circles that went dark when she was tired. The sun was a blurred, dark red orb. You could look directly at it through the haze, like a jewel under layers of tissue. I figured we were in for some kind of curious weather. In eastern Cuba, there were mornings I'd wake up and sense immediately that the weather had radically turned. I could see the bay from my window, and if a tropical storm was approaching, the sunrise would spread ribbons of light into the dense clouds piling up on the water's horizon, turning them rose-colored like they were glowing from inside. I loved the feeling of waking up to some drastic change, knowing that when I went downstairs the servants would be rushing around, taking the patio furniture inside and nailing boards over the windows, the air outside warm and gusting, the first giant wave surging in a glassy, green wall and drenching the embankment just beyond our garden. If a storm had already approached, I'd wake up to rain pouring down over the house, my room so dark I had to turn on the bedside lamp just to read the clock. Change was exciting to me, and when I woke up that morning and saw a rectangle of orange light, bright as embers, on my bedroom wall, it seemed like something special was about to happen.
It was early, and Mother and Daddy were still asleep. My brother, Del, had been gone for three weeks at that point, ever since we'd returned from our Christmas vacation in Havana. Daddy didn't talk about it openly, but I knew Del was up in the mountains with Raúl's column. I'd never been much for the pool hall in Mayarí, but I started hanging around down there after he disappeared. In Preston it was difficult to get information about the rebels. The Cubans all knew what was going on, but they kept quiet around Americans. The company was putting a lot of pressure on workers to stay away from anyone involved with the rebels. Who's going to talk to the boss's thirteen-year-old son? Down in Mayarí, people got drunk and opened their mouths. The week before, an old campesino grabbed me by the shoulder. He put his face up to mine, so close I could smell his rummy breath. He said something about Del. He said he was still young, but that he would be one of the great ones. A liberator of the people. Like Bolívar.
I could hear Annie making breakfast, opening and shutting drawers. I put on my slippers and went downstairs. It was so dark in the kitchen I could barely see. Annie had latched all the windows and closed the jalousies. I asked why she didn't open the shutters or put on a light.
Servants have their funny ways superstitions and you never know what they're up to. Annie didn't like to go out at dusk. If Mother insisted she run some errand, Annie put a scarf over her mouth. She said evil spirits tried to fly into women's mouths at dusk. Annie and our laundress, Darcina, both listened to this cockeyed faith healer Clavelito on radio CMQ. Darcina sometimes cried at night. She said she missed sleeping in a bed with her children. Mother bought her a portable to keep her company and ended up buying one for Annie as well, just to be fair. Mother was big on fairness. Clavelito told folks to set a glass of water on top of the radio, something about his voice blessing the water, and Annie and Darcina both did.
Annie said she'd closed the shutters on account of the air. There was an awful haze, and it was tickling her nose and making her hoarse. She said it must have been those guajiros burning their trash again. Annie didn't like the campesinos. She was a house servant, and that's a different class.
I sat down in the kitchen with the new issue of Unifruitco, our company magazine. It came out bimonthly, meaning the news was always a bit stale. This was January 1958, and on the front page was a photo of my brother and Phillip Mackey posing with a swordfish they'd caught in Nipe Bay, back in October. They'd won first prize in the fall fishing tournament. It was strange to see that photograph, now that both of them were gone and my brother no longer cared about things such as fishing tournaments. On the next page was Daddy with Batista and Ambassador Smith on our yacht the Mollie and Me. I flipped through the pages while Annie made pastry dough. She cut the dough into circles, put cheese and guava paste into the little circles, folded them over into half moons, and spread them on a baking sheet. Annie's pastelitos de guayaba, warm from the oven, were the most delicious things in the world. Some of the Americans in Preston didn't allow their servants to cook native. Mother was considerably more open-minded about these things, and she absolutely loved some of the Cuban dishes. Mother didn't cook. She made lists for Annie. Annie would take a huge red snapper and stuff it with potatoes, olives, and celery, then marinate it in butter and lime juice and bake it in the oven. That was my favorite. Six months earlier, in the summer of '57, when I turned thirteen, Annie said that because I was a young man and would be grown up before she knew it, she wanted to make me a rum cake for my wedding. Thirteen-year-old boys are not exactly thinking about marriage. Sure I'd fooled around with girls, but there wasn't any formal courtship going on. A rum cake will keep for ten or fifteen years, and Annie figured that was enough time for me to grow up and find a wife. She had the guys at the company machine shop make a five-tier tin just for that cake. The tin was painted white, with Kimball C. Stites handpainted on top, and handles on the sides for pulling out the cake layers. I don't know what happened to the cake or the tin with my name on it. Lost in the rush of leaving, like so many of our things.
Annie was putting her pastelitos in the oven when I heard Daddy's footsteps pounding down the stairs, and Mother calling after him, "Malcolm! Malcolm, please in God's name be careful!"
I ran into the foyer and met Daddy at the bottom of the stairs. He didn't look at me, just charged past like I was invisible, opened the front door, and took the veranda steps two at a time. I followed him, running down the garden path in my pajamas. He went around to the servants' quarters behind the house and pounded on Hilton Hardy's door. Hilton was Daddy's chauffeur.
"Hilton! Wake up!" He pounded on the door again. That was when I noticed Daddy still had on his rumpled pajama shirt underneath his suit jacket.
"Mr. Stites, Mr. Hardy visiting his people in Cayo Mambí," Annie called from the window of the butler's pantry, her voice muffled through the shut jalousies. "He got permission from Mrs. Stites."
Daddy swore out loud and rushed to the garage where Hilton kept the company limousine, a shiny black Buick. We had two of them Dynaflows, with the chromed, oval-shaped ventiports along the front fenders. Daddy opened the garage doors and got in the car, but he didn't start it. He got back out and shouted up to the house, "Annie! Where does Hilton keep the keys to this goddamn thing?"
"On a hook in there, Mr. Stites. Mr. Hardy have all the keys on hooks," she called back.
Daddy found the keys, revved the Buick, and backed it out of the garage. I watched from the path and didn't dare ask what was happening. He roared down the driveway, wheels spitting up gravel, and took a right on La Avenida.
That was the first time in my life I ever saw Daddy behind the wheel of his own car. He always had a driver. Daddy wore a white duck suit every day, perfectly creased, the bejesus starched out of it. A white shirt, white tie, and his panama hat. Every afternoon Hilton Hardy took him on his rounds in the Buick limousine. At each stop a secretary served Daddy a two-cent demitasse of Cuban coffee. They knew exactly what time he was coming and just how he liked his demitasse: a thimble-sized shot, no sugar. A "demi demi," he used to say. According to him, he never got sick because his stomach was coated with the stuff. Daddy was old-fashioned. He had his habits and he took his time. He was not a man who rushed.
I remember how the cane cutters lived: in one-room shacks called bohios. Dirt floors, a pot in the middle of the room, no windows, no plumbing, no electricity. The only light was what came through the open doorway and filtered into the cracks between the thatched palm walls. They slept in hammacas. They were squatters, but the company tolerated it because they had to live somewhere during the harvest. The rest of the year the dead time, they called it they were desolajos. I don't know what they did. Wandered the countryside looking for work and food, I guess. In the shantytown where the cane cutters lived it's called a batey there were naked children running everywhere. None of those people had shoes, and their feet had hard shells of calloused skin around them. They cooked their meals outdoors, on mangrove charcoal. Got their water from a spigot at the edge of the cane fields. They had to carry their water in hand buckets, but the company let them take as much as they wanted. It was certainly a better deal than the mine workers got over in Nicaro. Those people were employees of the U.S. government, and they had to get their water from the river the Levisa River where they dumped the tailings from the nickel mine. The Nicaro workers drank from the river, bathed in the river, washed their clothes in the river. If you wash your bike in the Levisa River after it rains, it gets shiny clean. That's a Cuban thing. I don't know why, but it really works. After it rained, everybody was down there, boys and grown men wading into the river in their underwear, washing cars and bicycles.
The American kids on La Avenida weren't supposed to go beyond the gates of Preston, down to the cane cutters' batey. I think it was a company policy. Inside the gates was okay. Beyond the gates, you were looking for trouble. But Hatch Allain's son Curtis Junior and I went down there all the time. We were boys, and curious. We sneaked into native dances. Curtis liked Cuban girls. That was a thing some of the American kids only dated Cubans. Phillip Mackey and Everly Lederer's sister Stevie from over in Nicaro were both like that, and they both got shipped off to boarding school in the States. Though in Phillip's case it wasn't just girls but the trouble he and my brother got into together, helping the rebels. The Cuban girls never gave poor Curtis the chance to get in any trouble. He was dirty and his ears stuck out, and the girls just didn't like him. I tried to tell him that you have to be a little aloof, a little bit take-it-or-leave-it, even if it isn't how you really feel, but Curtis just didn't get it.
It was Daddy's idea to give the cane cutters plots of land so they could feed themselves, grow yucca and sweet potatoes. He believed in self-sufficiency. He brought over Rev. Crim, who ran United Fruit's agricultural school. The cane cutters' kids were mostly illiterate. They studied practical things: farming, housekeeping, Methodist values. Daddy was conscientious about offering education, but he wouldn't have taken urchins up off the street like my mother wanted to do. My mother was a real liberal. She fed people at the back door. She would have had them inside the house if my father didn't put limits on her. If there was a child out in the batey who was ill or crippled or retarded, or had some sort of disease, Mother sent someone to pick him or her up and take the child to the company hospital. Christmastime, she went out into the countryside on her horse with gifts and toys. She wanted to go alone, but my father wouldn't allow it. A United Fruit security guard rode along behind her. I guess they were more like police officers than guards; they carried guns and guamparas that's like a machete, with a big, flat blade for slapping people. My mother rode her horse all over the countryside. She once brought the National Geographic folks on a tour, and they took a lot of pictures. That is still the finest magazine to me. When my mother rode up, the Cubans streamed out of their houses and gathered around her. They loved her. They wanted to touch her. She had that effect.
When Daddy first laid eyes on her, he was visiting his brother up near Crawfordsville, Indiana. Mother had run out of gas. Daddy saw her walking along the side of the road and he said here came this angel. Mother had been a May Queen, and she was president of Kappa Kappa Gamma at DePauw. I had to return her sorority pin when she died. Harlan Sanders that's Colonel Sanders he was from Indiana, and always in love with Mother. We were his guests at the Sanders Motor Court once, on our way to Cumberland Falls. You could tell he had that fatal thing for Mother. His hands shook and his face turned red when he greeted us. I think Daddy was amused. He didn't mind showing her off. Mother was a beautiful woman, and she took fine care of herself. Never washed her face with soap, only cold cream, and she was health-conscious. She had the servants making yogurt back when it was still a very unusual thing to eat. Every night she sat at her desk and brushed her hair a hundred times before she went to bed. You notice those things as a boy. Twice or three times a year Daddy would take us to Miami to shop for Mother's clothes. He'd arrange for a private room at Burdine's. He, Del, and I would sit with Mother as the models came out in various things. If we liked what the model wore, Mother tried it on and came out and took a spin. If we agreed that it looked nice, Daddy bought it. Mother said she would never wear anything that her men didn't approve of. At first I didn't want to spend the afternoon in a fitting room. But then I got to liking the ritual of it, and how nice Mother dressed herself. When Del started palling around with Phillip Mackey, Del grew less interested in family things and stopped coming with us to Miami. It wasn't as fun going without him, but it made Mother happy that I was there, and I took pride in helping her choose outfits, in being the son she could depend on. Later, when I was at military school, we dressed up for dances and functions and I knew how to put myself together because of Mother. I cared about these things. Mother said elegance was taking a plain outfit and accenting it with one flashy detail a tie, maybe. I still think of her when I get dressed up.
Dirt shacks, no running water the way those people lived, it's just how life was to me. I was a child. Mother didn't like it, but Daddy reminded her that the company paid them higher wages than any Cuban-owned sugar operation. Mother thought it was just terrible the way the Cuban plantations did business. It broke her heart, the idea of a race of people exploiting their own kind. The cane cutters were all Jamaicans, of course not a single one of them was Cuban but I knew what she meant: native people taking advantage of other native people, brown against black, that kind of thing. She was proud of Daddy, proud of the fact that the United Fruit Company upheld a certain standard, paid better wages than they had to, just to be decent. She said she hoped it would influence the Cubans to treat their own kind a bit better.
I knew something terrible had happened, watching Daddy take off like that, still wearing his pajama shirt. I ran back in to get dressed and heard Mother on the phone with Mr. LaDue, apologizing for calling so early. "Mr. Stites wanted me to call and inform you that there's a fire in the cane fields," she said. Of course it was a fire. Nothing else could have made that strange, orange light. "He wanted me to tell you he's gone out there." Even in a crisis, Mother was formal, always proper and composed. She was like that up to the very end. And it wasn't easy for her, believe me. To lose everything. And not just the house, our whole world, but to have her oldest son up there with those people.
Mother was in the kitchen talking to Annie, and I figured it was best to keep quiet and slip out without her noticing. Our house was next to the seawall, at the very end of La Avenida, across the street from my school, the Preston Academy for American Children. I opened the gate and headed right, toward the town square. La Avenida was the managers' row, with a locked gate and guards at the entrance. There was a pecking order in Preston, and we were at the end of the row, in the biggest house, with our own private guards, one in the daytime and one at night. The night guards were called serenos, and one sat on our steps until dawn. It was still early barely 6:00 A.M. and the street was peaceful and quiet. The only sound I heard was Mrs. LaDue's peacocks. Each house on La Avenida had an arbor at the front gate with bougainvillea, and beyond each gate, exquisite gardens. The company gardeners kept those places immaculate. A breeze was ruffling the bougainvillea, and bright pink leaves were blowing along the sidewalk. The new Unifruitco, rolled up with a rubber band, was sitting on every porch. I passed the swimming pool, where the week before we'd had a big poolside cookout for the Cabot Lodges, who were down visiting. Henry Cabot Lodge was an older fellow, but he'd been on the swim team at Harvard, and he was going off the high dive with us kids, doing flips and jackknives. The Cabot Lodges had returned to Boston a few days earlier. Now the pool was deserted and quiet. I noticed something settling on the surface of the water, a grayish film. It was ash floating down from the air.
The guard station was at the end of the avenue. I waved to the guard and kept going. From the town square, where company headquarters and Daddy's office were, I could see the mill off to the right. During the harvest, the mill ran on a twenty-four-hour schedule, lit up like a Christmas tree. Crushers going, cane syrup boiling, centrifugals humming. I expected to see steam drifting from the mill's two giant chimneys, but they were both cold. Cars loaded with cut cane were sitting on the train tracks just outside the mill, waiting to be rolled in and emptied into the crushers. You can't cut cane and leave it sitting it turns acidic and dries out. The entire extraction process was designed for that not to happen.
The smell of boiling cane syrup the meladura, it's called used to fill the air in Preston. A warm, malty smell. I loved that smell. I can smell it right now. There was a different smell in the air that morning, not exactly familiar. I headed toward the rail crossing. I figured the flagman might know what was happening and where to find Daddy. Beyond the tennis courts were the golf course, the polo fields, then nothing but cane for miles and miles. A yellowish mutt, one of those scrawny little Cuban dogs, trotted along beside me. As I got closer to the fields, that peculiar smell was getting stronger. The dog was zigzagging and putting his nose up to sniff. The air smelled like burned sugar, a tangy, black carbon smell, like when one of Annie's pies bubbled over and dripped onto the bottom of the oven.
There was no flagman at the crossing, which seemed odd. Three tracks converged, and cars were always coming in. A railroad car half-filled with freshly hacked cane sat there, abandoned like someone had suddenly decided to stop working. I stepped over the ties and took the access road past a row of workers' shanties. The workers usually had cook fires going out there in the morning, for boiling sweet potatoes that they ate while they worked in the fields. But there was no one around. Maybe it's idiotic, but I remember thinking, If there are no cook fires, how did the cane catch fire?
From the access road I saw a plume of black smoke going up. My next thought was that we'd been bombed. The week before, Batista had dropped white phosphorus over the Sierra Cristal, the mountains above us where the rebels were hiding. The smoke drifted over Preston, and the next day we had rain, and the rainwater covered the town with greasy soot. Rain fell in the mountains, too, but the fires up there kept burning. Water won't put out white phosphorus; it loves moisture. The fires burned for days, killing animals and a few of the guajiros who lived up there. Guajiros, that's one thing. Americans is another. Batista wouldn't have bombed us. We were practically the only support he had left in eastern Cuba.
I saw Daddy pull up in the black Buick, about a quarter mile down the road. He had Hatch and Rudy Allain riding with him. Hatch was the plantation boss. His brother, Rudy, was the guy who fixed all the mill machinery and irrigation equipment. The fire was in the southern part of our fields. As I got closer, heat baked my face and the front of my clothes. I heard the dry, licking sound of flames. Through waves of heat I could see Daddy talking to Rudy, and old Mr. LaDue running toward them from the other direction. A couple of lower management guys came hauling up the road in a company truck. Rudy yelled something to Daddy. I was close now, but I couldn't hear what he said. There was a burst that sounded like an explosion. Cane is volatile, especially when it's ready for cutting. Black smoke was filtering up so fast it looked like water running backward. Daddy picked up a cane cutter's machete and headed toward the narrow break between two burning fields. He ran right in and disappeared in the smoke and flames.
In Daddy's office at company headquarters there was a big map of Oriente. Oriente was where we lived, and it was Cuba's largest, poorest, blackest province. It has the best climate and most fertile land for growing sugarcane. Castro has it all divided up now, I don't know why; another cockeyed thing like changing the name of our town, Preston, to "Guatemala" which makes no sense at all. Back then the entire eastern half of the island was all one province, Oriente. On the map in Daddy's office, United Fruit's property was marked in green. Practically the whole map was green 330,000 acres of arable land with one small area of gray that wasn't ours marked "owned by others." People have no idea, the scale of things. Fourteen thousand cane cutters. Eight hundred fifty railcars. Our own machine shops, to repair every part in the mill. Our own airstrip. Two company DC-3s, a Lockheed Lodestar and Daddy's Cessna Bobcat, which he used for hedgehopping surveying land or popping over to Banes, the other company mill town thirty miles away. We had our own fleet of sugar boats that went back and forth to Boston. You could sit in the Pan-American Club, which had a bank of panoramic windows perched out over the water like the prow of an ocean liner, and watch the boats coming in and being loaded with bags of raw sugar. During cutting season, our mill processed fifteen million pounds of sugar a day.
The cane cutters were always paid their wages at the end of the season. Before the terrible thing that happened to him, Mr. Flamm, the paymaster, calculated their earnings in a giant ledger book. The workers lined up along the road, and Mr. Flamm unzipped a green leather moneybag and doled out pesos. The moneybag had a big lock on it at the end of the zipper, and the company logo embossed on the front. As each worker received his pay, Mr. Flamm crossed him off the list. He had the workers sign next to their names that they'd received their earnings in full. These guys were mostly from Jamaica. They spoke the king's English, but practically none of them could sign their name. They were supposed to just put a check next to it instead. Some of them didn't have last names, just nicknames. Hatch Allain stood by to make sure there was no monkey business. It was all handled in cash. They were paid straight cash, minus whatever they'd charged at the company store, the almacén. If they'd drawn off their pay, it was recorded in the ledger book. The company let them draw off their wages so they could eat before payday. None of them owned cars or mules, and they had to do their shopping in Preston. For a while, the company paid them at the end of each workday, but Daddy said it was better to hold off and pay them at the end of the season. The reason was that some of those guys who came over from Jamaica to cut the cane found out they didn't like it so much. They deserted, never paid the company for their boat passage from Kingston. Cutting cane is brutal, brutal work, some of the hardest work in the world. Bending over all day long under broiling sun, hitting the cane with a flat-blade machete. Leaves so sharp they'll slice you to ribbons. People get sunstroke; there were heart attacks in our fields. They have to work fast because the sugar starts to turn. The acid content rises and it ferments if the cane sits for more than a few hours. The workers cut the cane and stripped it of leaves. Tied it into bundles and loaded the bundles onto oxcarts, and from oxcarts onto cane cars, which were shunted straight into the mill for processing. It was an eighteen-hour workday, with maybe four hours of sleep. Those guys were up before dawn, and after dark they worked by the light of oil pots. If you pay people at the very end of cutting season, they stick around and finish the job.
The cane cutters in Preston hadn't always been Jamaican. Up through the forties, the company hired mostly Haitians. Every year Daddy went by ship to Cap-Haïtien to bring a bunch of them to Cuba for cutting season. He had a gentleman over there, an absolutely elegant Frenchman named Mr. Bloussé, who contracted for so many workers to come over and cut our cane. I was just a little teeny kid, but I remember one of those ships, a double-stacked tramp steamer, docked in the Preston bay and packed with them, black arms hanging out the open sides. They unloaded those guys from the ship and transported them in open railcars. They might have been cane cars, come to think of it. The cane cars are just cages, with oval-shaped iron bars that bow out like a whale's rib cage, to hold cane stalks. They trundled the Haitians out to a compound, kind of a pen, and dosed them with salts. The doctor from the company hospital would go and have a look at them, Dr. Romero, who gave health certificates for servants every servant had to have a certificate or they couldn't work in your home. The men were examined and left in the pen for several days to make sure they didn't have any communicable diseases, ophthalmia, or what have you. There was some nasty stuff on those ships. That one can make you blind.
When I was boy we had iceboxes, and the ice came in a burlap sugar sack surrounded by sawdust to keep it from melting. Every day a little horse came down La Avenida pulling a cart, and the iceman delivered our hundred-pound block of ice. After payday, and just before they shipped the cane cutters back to Haiti on those doubledeckers, the Haitians would go down to Mayarí and buy trunks and fill them with things to take home, gaudy silk shirts in red or yellow, trinkets, bottles of Cuban rum, that sort of thing. One fellow bought a trunk, then went and got himself a hundred-pound block of ice. Without telling anybody, this guy put the ice in his trunk and carried it with him onto the ship. When they docked in Le Cap he wanted to kill the captain because he said the captain stole his ice.
We'd had cane fires before. When I was six, lightning hit, and several hundred acres burned. The company roused the workers, and they had almost a thousand guys out there hacking into the breaks with machetes to widen them and prevent the fire from jumping the road. They backburned so that when the fire got to the break there was nothing left to fuel it. Cane fires are notoriously difficult to put out. That morning, I could see flames spreading out across the southern part of our fields. I couldn't imagine how they would get the fire under control, even with every last worker out there helping.
Rudy was talking to Mr. LaDue and some other guys when I came running up. I'd never cut a break, but I grabbed a machete that was leaning against the little shed where poor Mr. Flamm may he rest in peace used to pay the workers. Mr. Flamm was a delicate little guy in wire-framed glasses, and they'd built him the shed so he wouldn't have to stand in the sun as he doled out wages to the cane cutters. The machete was heavy. I couldn't have swung it worth a damn, but I was willing to try. I started heading toward the break where Daddy had gone in. Rudy grabbed me by the shoulders and blocked my way. "Hold on, son," he said. "We don't need you burning yourself up in that field." Just then, two guys pulled up in a truck and yelled to Rudy that they couldn't get the main valve open. Rudy said to come with him. We ran over and hopped into one of the trucks. He drove us down the access road a ways and parked. There was a spigot there, the opening to the main irrigation line. Rudy bent down and started loosening the bolt on the spigot with a wrench. He took the bolt off and turned the valve wheel counterclockwise. Nothing happened. No water came out. He spun the wheel. It was all the way open.
"Goddamnit." He threw his wrench on the ground. The air was thick with smoke, and one of Rudy's eyes was red and irritated. His other eye was glass. I started coughing and inched my shirt up over my mouth.
He spun the open wheel again. "We're shit out of luck, K.C."
More guys were arriving, fellows from company headquarters. Daddy's secretary, Mr. Suarez, was with them he might have been the only Cuban in the bunch. They had machetes, and scarves tied around their mouths. They went in at the break near the busted main valve. There were no cane cutters out there. No mill workers, either. Just management agriculture guys and pencil pushers from the offices.
"The batey is a ghost town," Hatch Allain, the plantation boss, yelled, walking toward us. "I've got the guards knocking on doors, getting people up around town. We should have at least a hundred guys out here soon."
The heat from the flames pressed against my face like I was getting a sunburn. I kept coughing, although I had the shirt up over my mouth. How Daddy could stand it in the thick of the fire is beyond me.
Mr. LaDue came down the road, and Rudy called to him that the valve was busted and there wasn't any water. Mr. LaDue looked even older than usual. His face was half-shaved. He had shaving cream on his neck.
"If we don't get the fire stopped at the access road, the whole town is going up," he told Rudy.
As more men appeared, Rudy and Hatch were yelling instructions, where to go into the cane fields and how deep to cut. I wanted to help out. I said, "Rudy, Hatch, put me to work." But Rudy said I should go home and have my mother call Mr. Smith, the American ambassador. What Ambassador Smith could do about a cane fire was beyond me, but I did what he said.
The cloud of smoke from the fire was shifting out over the bay. It looked like a massive black ocean liner moving across the sky. Ash was flaking down over the town as I ran back to the house to give Mother Rudy's message. It was like falling snow, lacy gray flakes that sifted through the air and wafted back up on the hot drafts from the blaze. Maybe it was more like fake snow in a snow dome than real snow. It just whirled around, a circular blizzard of cane ash.
Mr. Bloussé, who contracted the workers from Haiti, came to visit us once in Preston. He was dashing like a movie star, blond hair pomaded and shiny, a silk ascot tied around his neck. He wore French-tailored shirts with black onyx cuff links and military jodhpurs. A servant stood behind him, a young Haitian boy who was quiet as a mouse, a curious boy. Mr. Bloussé would snap his fingers and say something to the boy in French, and the boy would scamper off to run some errand. I figured he spoke only French or some version of it, a native patois, but on one occasion Mr. Bloussé's little Haitian boy spoke to me in English. Mr. Bloussé was in the parlor with Daddy, and the boy stopped me in the hall and asked if we had any books he could look at. This boy carried luggage and shined Mr. Bloussé's shoes. He stood patiently in the hall like he didn't have a thought in his head. And yet apparently he was able to read, and in English. I gave him some magazines to look at, and asked him how he learned. He said Mr. Bloussé taught him. That it was part of his training. I don't know what sort of training. Later, that same boy ended up working for the Lederer family in Nicaro. One of the Lederers' daughters, Everly, the redhead, used to follow him around. It was the same boy, but he was a grownup by then just one more Haitian servant in Nicaro, except he had this curious history, which I knew about.
Mr. Bloussé brought Luxenil lace for Mother, and for Daddy a bottle of expensive cognac. He and Daddy drank and smoked cigars late every night. Daddy collected liquors from all over the world. On a mahogany cart he had miniature glass bears from Russia filled with kümmel, and bottles of yellow and green Chartreuse the yellow glowed; it looked like it had a lightbulb shining up through the glass from underneath. He had orgeat and syrupy white crème de menthe in cut-crystal decanters. Spanish cider, and pear brandy that had a whole pear floating in the bottle. That one was from Portugal. The bottle was clear and the fruit loomed up like a fish under the surface of a pond. The younger guys in management came over to sit in the parlor, drink cognac, and visit with Mr. Bloussé. He'd been in the French Foreign Legion, he'd traveled all over the world. Zanzibar, you name it. Everybody admired him. He was wealthy, with a magnificent estate in Cap-Haïtien. I remember him talking about his three daughters. They were just old enough to get married, maybe seventeen or eighteen. Some of the guys in management wanted to set up meetings with Mr. Bloussé, to court the daughters. I imagined them as tropical French princesses, pretty girls in elaborate costumes, hand servants fanning them with palm fronds in a courtyard.
"Yes, I'm aware that His Excellency is in Havana, but my husband feels he ought to know," Mother said to someone at the embassy.
"Call the fire department? Yes, ma'am."
"Well, I'm not sure why he wanted me to call, but there must have been some reason. If you could forward the message, that this is Evelyn Stites, calling on behalf of Malcolm Stites, and we've got quite a blaze on our hands."
"Yes, ma'am, we've called the fire department."
Mother was too polite to tell the embassy receptionist that this was United Fruit territory, and we were the fire department.
After she made the call, Mother started crying and held on to me and wouldn't let go. Crying was something Daddy didn't tolerate. I knew this was her chance to get it out. I didn't tell her what Mr. LaDue had said about the town going up in flames. I didn't need to. Through the window we could both see Ho, our gardener, aiming his hose up to wet the roof and the sides of the house.
By noon, the smoke coming from the cane fields was so thick it blotted out the sun. It was the middle of the day and we had the dregs of twilight, like it was nine o'clock on a summer night. Mother and Annie and the other servants were rushing around putting damp towels up against the window sashes and under the doors. Ambassador Smith's secretary, or maybe his secretary's secretary, called to say she was still trying but had not yet located His Excellency. Ambassador Smith was never in his office when Daddy needed him. If the workers went on strike, or there was some misunderstanding with Batista's people about export dues, Daddy called and the ambassador took his sweet time dealing with it, busy playing golf at the yacht club or hosting a charity ball. He was a real high society New England type, Yale University, all of that. The Havana Yacht Club was so exclusive that they blackballed the president of Cuba. Batista was a mulatto from Banes, the other United Fruit town. His father had worked for us as a cane cutter. Batista had worked for us, too, for the company railroad. He started out as an assistant to a chauffeur on a company line car that's an automobile with flanged wheels, it runs on the track and was eventually promoted to flagman.
I was in the parlor listening to the radio, to see if I could find out what was happening in the mountains. It hadn't occurred to me that the fire was deliberately set, but my instinct had been to try to tune in the rebels' wireless broadcast, Radio Rebelde. It was on the twenty-meter band, at 5:00 and 9:00 P.M. every night, and came in perfectly clear. Daddy didn't allow it, but I listened when he wasn't around, thinking maybe I could find out something about my brother. They talked about Raúl's column, and this and that victory, and the horrific phosphorus bombings in the mountains, and once I heard something about "brave foreigners" helping the cause. But no one ever mentioned Del by name. It seems surprising in retrospect that they missed such a whopping opportunity for propaganda. The oldest son of enemy number one, the head of La United, had joined the cause, and they aren't using it.
When the fellows from Preston and Nicaro were kidnapped a few months later in the summer of that year, 1958 the rebels invited a photojournalist from Life to go up to the Sierra Maestra and visit their camp. From the magazine pictures it looked like those guys were having one hell of a party up there, kidnappers and hostages drinking rum and smoking cigars, goofing off and lying around barefoot in hammocks. Mr. Lederer from Nicaro posed with a rebel's hip holster, a drawn gun, and the caption said the Cubans had nicknamed him "Desperado." What sort of kidnapping is that? The rebels managed to look like real heroes romantic-type revolutionaries right there in the pages of Life magazine. It would have been quite a scandal that they had an American boy on their side. And not just any boy, but a poster child for American "imperialismo" Delmore Stites, son of Malcolm Stites, manager of the United Fruit Company's Cuba Division.
I fiddled with the radio set and finally got Rebelde. It sounded like they'd closed down the highway east of Camagüey. They had a reputation for overstating their advances, and I didn't really believe it. I heard the parlor door open and quickly switched off the broadcast. A man covered with soot was standing in the doorway. He looked like a chimney sweep, charred from head to toe. The hair on his head was burned off in patches. It was Daddy. His eyebrows were gone. So was his mustache. He had a banged-up gas can in his hand, a green and yellow company can like the ones in Rudy's machine shop. He stood there and didn't say a word, just tossed the gas can on the parlor floor. It bounced on the wood, empty. Daddy never wore anything but the white ducks. He was the picture of a United Fruit man, tall and intimidating in his perfectly pressed suit. And here he was, his white pants filthy, jacket gone. Wearing his pajama shirt, the sleeves rolled up, burned patches on his hands and arms that were the color of raw steak.
The dented gas can lay on the parlor floor, its cap missing. Daddy stood over it in his burned, soot-smeared clothes. He looked too dirty to sit down on his own furniture.
"Found this out there in the fields," he said.
I couldn't tell if I was supposed to respond or keep quiet. I knew what it meant. Someone set the fire. If the cane operation was anybody's, it was Daddy's. The idea that people would want to destroy it, it was like they wanted to destroy him. And us.
"It's disgusting what these people are willing to do." He started coughing. "Those son of a bitches." His voice was almost gone from the smoke. "Those goddamn son of a bitches. This is what they call negotiating?"
Daddy sat down in the chair across from me and put his head in his hands.
"They say they want to do business, work out a deal. And the next thing you know, they're trying to burn us to the ground."
I didn't know it at the time, but Daddy had been sending messages up into the mountains, trying to negotiate with Raúl. By that point, the American managers in Oriente saw the writing on the wall and everybody was scrambling to keep the door open with the rebels, hoping to keep their operations running, their sweetheart deals and tax-free status, in case the rebels were suddenly the new government. Daddy was still dealing with Batista, of course he was the president but Batista had lost control of Oriente. That was a fact, but people in Havana, Ambassador Smith, and Batista's army generals these guys were in denial. So Daddy had taken it upon himself to get a line of communication going. I'm sure he was trying to get Del back as well. The problem was that Del didn't want to come home.
"We had a deal," Daddy said, "and the deal was, I work with them and they leave us alone. I sent a letter up there to Raúl Castro. They've got it in writing. And they turn around and attack us."
My father had never confided in me about these sorts of things. Work was work, and he hung it up at the door; that was his rule.
"I personally promised this faggot Raúl that I'd get Dulles on the horn and stop the arms shipments. And I did I held up my end of the bargain and this is what I get: a bunch of natives running out of the hills and starting fires." The gray area marked "owned by others" on the map in Daddy's office was a decent-sized plantation near Birán, fifteen miles southwest of us. It belonged to Don Ángel Castro, Fidel and Raúl's father. He had acquired a lot of property down there for some unusual reason. I don't know how he did it moving fence lines, probably. He sold his cane to us, but he wouldn't sell the land. Everybody knew the family. The kids, especially Raúl and Fidel, would lurk down in Mayarí, at the pool halls and the cockfights, when they were visiting from Havana, where they all went off to school. Later, Fidel said that when they were growing up they weren't allowed into Preston, or invited to any of our social functions or permitted to use our beaches. But they were not employees of the United Fruit Company, and it was all private property, every last bit of it. And even if they had been employees, Cubans weren't allowed certain places, like the Pan-American Club. But they wouldn't have wanted to go to our club. Everybody kept to themselves. American with American. Cuban with Cuban. Jamaican with Jamaican. I remember thinking Raúl was a fruity type. People said he was like that. You know what I mean. A maricón. And they said he had a Chinese mother he was Oriental-looking, and people were suspicious about that. I don't know if there was more to it than just gossip. Fidel's mother was the old man's maid Lina she had a withered arm from polio. Del and I used to go hunting up in Birán, guinea hens and blue pigeons, and we'd see Don Ángel sitting on the porch in his guayabera, a big cigar in his mouth. We always stopped and said hello. The first time he invited us up for a glass of water, I couldn't help staring at Lina's withered arm, fascinated the way boys are. That place was in true guajiro style, the house up on stilts, with chickens and goats running around underneath it.
Months before the fire started, Daddy had begun to suspect that some of the cane cutters were rebel sympathizers. He had Rev. Crim reporting on the workers. And you might call it racist, especially nowadays, but it was reasonable to assume that anybody black whether they were Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican was trouble. Two months before the fire was set, one of the cane cutters had gone into Mr. Flamm's office to see him. He wanted chits so he could draw off his pay and get credit at the almacén. But he'd already overdrawn what he would make for the whole cutting season. Some of these guys were foolish about that. They'd get chits to buy appliances at the company store and turn around and sell them in Mayarí for a quarter of what they were worth, just to have the money. Spend it on rotgut or lottery tickets. By the time payday rolled around they had nothing coming. They were working like dogs for no pay, just to get out of debt with the company. This cane cutter and Mr. Flamm had an argument. Mr. Flamm wouldn't give him any store credit and tried to show him the books and explain why, but the guy wasn't having any of it. What a shame. There is no reason to bring a machete into company headquarters. Mr. Flamm was a little teeny man in his wire-framed glasses. If only somebody had stopped the guy before he went in carrying that machete. After that, Hatch said no blacks in the offices. Mr. Flamm bled to death right there in the accounting office. That's not politics, it's mental illness. There were lots of cane cutters, thousands of them, and as I said, they barely had names. They came over on boats from Kingston and lived in these hovels. The one who killed Mr. Flamm ran off. I don't know if they ever caught him.
The company guys who wanted to court Mr. Bloussé's daughters came to our house to meet with Mr. Bloussé. There were three of them, and they showed up with their hair combed flat, in dinner jackets, smelling of Vitalis. They were bachelors, bored and lonely. They had good pay, no expenses, free housing; everything was provided by the company. But there was no place to go, nothing to spend the money on, and they couldn't date the Cuban girls. At least not the upper-class, light-skinned girls. The Cubans didn't allow it: Americans were mongrels as far as they were concerned. We didn't have the right blood. Rich Cubans, the planters and politicians, they sent their children to be educated in Europe Paris or Madrid not the United States. They wanted their daughters to marry Spanish aristocrats, not some rube from Kansas. If these fellows did manage to get a date with a Cuban girl, they were expected to sit on the porch with her mother, her sister, her grandmother a stern dueña in a black lace shawl, policing the situation. In Oriente, you never went out with a young Cuban girl alone. But these guys weren't used to any of that, so they cut corners. Daddy said he lost a lot of good people, really fine employees, because of the trouble they got themselves into with Cuban women. Daddy was sensitive about those things. We may have owned the land, but Daddy had to deal with Cubans to keep things running smoothly with Batista, the Rural Guard, these sorts of Latin factotums, and it was better to fire an employee than to offend anyone. Daddy made it a policy to send fat old Jamaican women to work in bachelors' homes. The younger the employee, the fatter and older and uglier the maid. No young, pretty servants for those guys. Daddy himself always had a male secretary. He worked late hours, and said he didn't want his secretary leaving to go fix dinner for her family.
Mr. Bloussé came back to Preston and he brought his wife and the three daughters. They stayed at the company hotel down by the docks like everything else in town, I'm sure it's fallen into an awful state at this point. I've seen pictures and it's terrible how they haven't taken care of those places. They cram ten families in each house and let the buildings rot, no paint, no maintenance. It was a very elegant hotel, with dark red walls and mahogany furniture. Mr. Bloussé and his wife and daughters checked in and then came to our house for dinner. When they arrived, Mother's mouth nearly dropped to the floor. Mr. Bloussé's wife was Haitian she was black, and I mean black, and so were the daughters. Annie didn't want to serve them. I think she felt it was an insult to have to wait on other blacks, and such dark ones, too. There are codes to these things. The bachelors who'd come over to impress Mr. Bloussé with their greased hair and Vitalis, they got wind of it and none of them showed up to meet the daughters. The courtships were called off. The guys all joked about it afterward, said Mr. Bloussé was a nigger-lover and a mud shark. But I never heard Daddy mention it. I knew he disapproved of race mixing. The Cubans did it sometimes, they dated black, and they called their girlfriends mi negrita. And the Chinamen married Cubans because they had to. There weren't any Chinese women. Maybe that's why people accused the Chinamen of being homosexuals. And why people accused Raúl Castro of it because he looked part Chinese. We had two Chinamen at the house, one for the vegetable garden and one for the flowers. Daddy had a whole village of them, to work the centrifugals at the sugar mill. It was hot as Hades in that room. As the centrifugals stirred the boiling cane syrup, the last impurities bubbled up and the sugar crystals got spun out. The Chinamen wore little underwear like Speedo bathing suits as they worked. The Cubans refused to do that job because of the heat. Each Chinaman had a cup of salt and a bucket of water, and they wore the little Speedos because it was like 140 degrees in there. They would just sweat, sweat, sweat.
"As you can see," Mr. Bloussé said to Daddy that night when we sat down to dinner, "I'm doing my part to blanchir the population." He gestured to the wife and daughters. During dinner, Mr. Bloussé told a story about a ship where ophthalmia spread. Everyone on the ship, including the captain and his helmsman, caught it and went blind, and they plowed right into another steamer. Daddy laughed and seemed relaxed, as if he admired Mr. Bloussé as much as he had before we knew he had a colored family. I was a young boy and this was confusing to me, why something Daddy disapproved of was suddenly okay. I figured it had to do with Mr. Bloussé being French and exotic and debonair. Like maybe the very rich didn't have to abide by the same rules as everybody else. Mother and Daddy didn't even want me hugging Annie so tightly. Mother was a liberal, but not too liberal. Mother said Annie's smell rubbed off on me she'd sniff me to check. Annie did have a smell, sort of musky. I loved it. I can smell it right now. When I was little I let her hug me when they weren't around. She squeezed me tight. It was a wonderful, safe feeling, my face buried in her apron so I could barely breathe. She called me muñequito, her little doll. I don't remember if she had any children of her own. Maybe she did, but I think they lived in Mayarí. Annie lived with us. Once, in a taxicab here in Tampa, the driver was some type of black Caribbean and his cab smelled like Annie.
With no water to put out the fires, Daddy said we would have to wait for them to burn themselves out. The men kept on cutting breaks, putting down flame retardant along the access road, backburning, and we had to just hope for the best. At about five o'clock that evening, Rudy Allain came to our house. He was blackened from head to toe with cane ash. I couldn't remember Rudy ever coming to our house before. Certainly not inside, as a guest. As I said, there was a pecking order in Preston, always someone to answer to. Daddy wasn't Rudy's boss. Rudy was a few notches down the chain. Rudy and his brother, Hatch, were different from us socially, you could say. Coarse people from Louisiana who knew how to handle workers. They didn't live on La Avenida. Daddy had them in two brick houses down by the mill.
Daddy and Rudy sat in the kitchen, talking. Rudy told Daddy the rebels had drained our gasoline supply, and there was nothing in the pumps. They'd done it the previous night, just before they torched our fields. Rudy said whoever had done it must have had keys to the shop. Keys to the fuel pumps. Known where the valves for the irrigation lines were in order to cut off the water. Rudy said maybe an insider was helping them. Maybe an American, he said, and then pointed out again that it had to be someone with keys. Hilton kept all of Daddy's company keys on hooks in the garage, a label on each set. I remembered hearing Hilton tell Daddy that he needed masters to make new copies, that some of the keys were missing. That was right after Del disappeared.
Daddy stood up from the table. "Goddamnit, Rudy. My son is gone, probably kidnapped by these lunatics. For all I know he's lashed to a tree, eating bark, and you're telling me he came down here and torched the town where he was born? Where both of my children were born?"
"I'm not saying he started the fire, Mr. Stites "
"Then what the hell are you saying?"
"Nothing, sir. I'm sorry if I implied I hope the boy is okay is all."
Del was okay, and Daddy knew it. For starters, he hadn't been kidnapped. He went gladly. He wasn't on our side.
The fire burned late into the night. From our upstairs windows we could see a reddish glow, and smoke backlit by the glow. The rebels had blocked our train lines and the road into Preston. Daddy was putting in calls to Ambassador Smith, hoping he'd get us help from Guantánamo. Maybe they could send a firefighting vessel up the coast, one of those things that pumped ocean water. But then the town transformers had to be shut down because of fire danger, and we had no phone line. Mother, Daddy, and I sat around with hurricane lamps going. Mother tried to keep the mood light. She knew how to handle a crisis, and she and I played canasta. What else was there to do? There's something relaxing about that game. Bastista played it obsessively. Some people say that's why his government collapsed. The rebels were taking over, and meanwhile he was at the presidential palace playing canasta, his aides standing behind the other players, signaling discreetly what cards they held. Annie made us cold sandwiches and we ate those while we played. Daddy paced and cursed Smith he'd been warning the ambassador that all hell was about to break loose, but Smith kept insisting that Fidel was just a ruffian in the hills. The ambassador was out of touch with what was happening in Oriente. He'd come recently to Santiago, and his reception was about as warm and friendly as what those Venezuelans gave Nixon a few months after the fire, in May of '58. Rocks whistling through the air. When Smith arrived in Santiago, the Rural Guard had been cracking down as a warning to the rebels. They'd killed a few students, and people were livid. That was his last visit. I think he preferred the yacht club in Havana.
Rudy came back to our house later that night, to tell Daddy that all we had left in Preston for drinking water was the rain that had collected in the molasses tanks.
The company never had operations in Haiti. Daddy said it wasn't the right political climate for business. In Cuba, we Americans had our traditions, our own world. The company had a set of arrangements with Batista, annual payments, and in return there were no taxes, no tariffs, and we didn't have to bother with the labor unions or any labor laws. We exported raw sugar, and nobody raised a stink. We sent our sugar up to Boston for processing, to the Revere Sugar Refinery. Batista came to our house. He and Daddy got along fine. I don't know that they were friends exactly, but they had an understanding.
I'm sure you know the slaves had a revolution in Haiti. A hundred years before slavery was abolished in Cuba, slaves were running the show over there. But instead of voting in a real government, those guys ran buck wild. Put jeweled crowns on their heads and acted like crazed despots, strutting around with white babies on pikes. But what can you expect of a revolution that began with the pounding of African drums, slaves communicating by voodoo? Bloody mayhem is what. Freed slaves running amok in generals' coats with all the medals and the gold epaulets, and nude from the waist down. They gave themselves ridiculous titles: Chevalier, Viceroy, Generalissimo. The whole thing seems like a bad fever dream. French landowners wallowing in the squalor of their own destroyed estates, lying under the open taps in their own wine cellars, drinking themselves sick. I think they were happy to finally own nothing. Rule no one. Burned mansions, burned crops the slaves in Haiti torched everything. Of course, slavery is terrible, and as I said, cutting cane is brutal, brutal work. But the slaves were forced, and that's the difference. On some of the plantations the masters made them wear tin face masks so they wouldn't eat the cane. Can you imagine? We let them eat the cane, I mean not as a policy, but nobody had to wear any mask. I'm sure it cost more to make those masks than to lose a few stalks of cane.
Preston was eerily quiet that night. There weren't any trains. Normally, I could hear them from our house, rolling through all night. I would lie in the dark and listen to that long, low whistle, and imagine the train's round yellow headlight cutting a beam through the nighttime mist, which came in off the bay and hung over our fields, a floating lake of ghostly white. From the tone of the train's whistle I'd tell myself, there's the Number Thirty-two. The Number Forty-one. El Veintiuno, El Veintiocho. These were all steam engines, and I knew them by their sound. When I was much younger, Annie came to lie in bed with me some nights. If Mother and Daddy were at a cocktail party or if I was scared and felt like visiting with somebody, Annie came and listened to the trains with me. She knew them, too. All the servants did. The engine whistles were like voices, each one different.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. It takes a while to put things together. You can't always do it while it's happening to you. A week before the fire started, the rebels closed down the main highway east of Las Tunas. That meant they had control of Oriente, so much of which was owned by Americans. Us, and the American government, who ran the Nicaro nickel mine. Batista was persona non grata with the Cubans, and we were caught in the middle. Fidel and Raúl, these were local boys, and I think Daddy was hoping he could reason with them. But after the embargo on U.S. sales of military planes to Cuba, that was in March of '57, Batista put pressure on Daddy to convince John Foster Dulles Mr. Dulles was a friend of Daddy's and a stock holder and his brother Allen was on the company's board to find a loophole and get a sale of bombers through. Daddy did that, he spoke to Mr. Dulles, and they set up a pretty crazy scheme. Later, Mr. Dulles told Congress that the Cubans had received the wrong shipment before the embargo and the new shipment was simply making good on an old arms deal. Batista got his B-26 bombers. This was in the late fall of 1957. Del disappeared at Christmas that year. It was almost a month later, January 1958, when they torched our cane fields. Batista had been strafing the rebels with his American planes, and the rebels were furious. This is why they attacked us, because of the American bombers. Daddy's deal with Batista wrecked Daddy's deal with the rebels. These guys who started the fires, most of them had been United Fruit employees. We were the biggest employer in the whole region. The worst part was that Daddy's oldest son was up in the mountains, getting bombed by American planes that Daddy had helped Batista to buy.
But we'd been through this kind of thing before. There was a revolution in 1933, before I was born, when they overthrew Machado. Mother and Daddy lived in Guaro at the time, a few miles inland from Preston. Daddy was superintendent in charge of agriculture, and the company gave him a house out in the country, right on the Guaro River. Mother and Daddy hid behind a table as bullets shattered the window glass. It was a good table, Mother said, four-inch-thick mahogany. She said they'd be dead if they hadn't had such a fine table. There were troublemakers right outside the house. The U.S. government sent gunboats out onto Nipe Bay to protect the Americans. Mother and Daddy hid and waited for a skyrocket, the signal to get to the gunboats by any means possible. But no skyrockets went off. Sumner Welles, who was the American ambassador at the time, told President Machado he better leave the island, and the rebels called off the shooting. Mother said it was amazing. Just like that, the American ambassador snaps his fingers and it's quiet outside.
Months before that fire started, Daddy had already been shipping our mahogany furniture back to the States, piece by piece, but I hadn't thought to ask why. I was born at the company hospital in Preston. Up to that point I'd spent my entire life in Oriente Province, on the property of the United Fruit Company. I was a boy, and it was my world. I wasn't ready to give it up. Copyright © 2008 by Rachel Kushner
What People are Saying About This
"Lloyd James's spirited reading captures every aspect of Kushner's story; he can easily tug at listeners' heartstrings and guide them on a remarkable journey." -Publishers Weekly Audio Review
Reading Group Guide
Cuba has long fascinated and compelled writers from Ernest Hemingway and Graham Green to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Russell Banks. Most writers and readers know about the glamorous, renegade, romantic, often corrupt communities of expats and iconic locals in Havana. But there's another piece of the American experience. For half a century, the United States controlled the sugar and nickel operations in Cuba the country's two main exports centered in the lavish, expatriate "sister" enclaves of Preston and Nicaro, 600 miles east of Havana, but intimately connected.
The United Fruit Company owned 300,000 acres in northeast Oriente Province, an area long considered the cradle of Cuban revolutions. In the midst of UF Co's vast cane plantation were 100 acres the company did not own. Those 100 acres belonged to Fidel and Raul Castro's father. The sons, who grew up excluded from a privileged American world, started the revolution there. Telex from Cuba is the story of that world, told from the point of view of three narrators: a boy whose father runs United Fruit's sugar operation, a girl whose father runs the nickel operation, and a French agitator who helps train the rebels.
Like every great novel told through the eyes of a child, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Telex from Cuba seduces the reader into the drama of a family encountering unexpected conflict and the story of the gradual awakening of adolescents to issues of class, race, and social injustice. KC Stites and Everly Lederer are extraordinarily compelling narrators, and their parents and their parents' friends are portrayed with a combination of scrutiny and forgiveness that beguiles the reader. The book's multiple perspectives including that of the more jaded La Mazière round Telex into not just a coming-of-age tale but a story of political change. The revolution does come. The families are evacuated. The company town is expropriated. And it is all told in a novel that will put Rachel Kushner on the map of contemporary American literature.
Group Discussion Questions:
1. KC Stites tells his story as an adult. Why do you think Rachel Kushner chose to write his story in first person (as opposed to the others told in third person) based on a grown man's memories? How might the story be different if a young KC was telling it?
2. Everly notes that "If her parents ever did get rich, their old selves would hate their new selves" (p. 42). Discuss the importance of social class in 1950s Cuba, both amongst the expatriates (the Stites, Lederers, Allains, etc.), their servants (Annie, Willy, etc.), and the locals, such as Mr. Gonzalez. Are there rigid laws, or can people maneuver between classes? Why are issues straightened out native to native (pg. 187)?
3. La Mazière believed Rachel K "gauzed her person in persona, but sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in an elaborate tangle" (pg. 55). Discuss the significance of identity in Telex from Cuba. Who is not what they seem? The Lederer daughters have a doll, Scribbles, whose face they can erase and then re-draw. Are other people capable of reinventing themselves?
4. Why do these families move to Cuba? Do they arrive seeking to escape their pasts, hoping for new business opportunities, or looking forward to a new adventure? When they leave, have they accomplished their goals? What do they take away?
5. Throughout the novel, many characters note the red haze of nickel oxide that floats from the company's mines and covers the whole area. What, if anything, does this red dust symbolize?
6. "A human trapped inside a monkey trapped inside a cage. But when she tried to put him down, he screeched like a vicious animal" (pg. 97). What role do animals play in this novel? Consider the shark Del insists on killing, Mrs. LaDue's caged monkey Poncho, and the pig Mr. Stites beats to death to teach KC a lesson.
7. In this novel, what is the significance of one's nationality? Rachel K claims to be French, people believe La Mazière is German, Mr. Carrington is actually Cuban, and Deke Havelin renounces his American citizenship to become Cuban. Is a person's nationality a matter of choice, where they're born, the family they're born into, or how they appear to others?
8. What drives La Mazière? Why is he in Cuba, and why does a Frenchman join an army of Cuban rebels? Does he have true political motivations, or is he simply an instigator? And will he always yearn for a "luminous bubble, for an impossible time of privilege and turmoil" (pg. 200)?
9. Do you believe the story Rachel K tells La Mazière about her past, or does she merely like to play games? Does she have true feelings for him? What is the significance of her painted on fishnets?
10. When Mr. Carrington returns home from being kidnapped, his wife never sees him on the lawn because the indoor lights are on: "she'd have to put herself in darkness in order to see" (pg. 253). When thinking about Rachel K preferring to sleep without blankets so she can freeze and then make herself warm, La Mazière ponders what the director said about Woodsie, that she "gives radiant joy, but then she takes it away" (pg. 229). What do these observations imply about the women? Can you think of other examples of dichotomy?
11. Why does KC give Everly the Pullman car's door handle? What does it represent to each of them? Does KC truly have feelings for her, or does he want to please his mother?
12. KC thinks Everly has a funny look, but "maybe everyone has that look, but they know to cover it" (pg. 267). Which characters are best at wearing masks?
13. As they're being evacuated, Everly looks over the island from the boat and realizes "It's so niceéwithout us" (pg. 277). How did the families of the United Fruit Company impact Cuba, for both the good and bad? Will anyone be sad to see them leave?
14. In the closing words of Telex from Cuba, KC states "You don't call the dead. The dead call you" (pg. 317). What does he mean by this? Who is calling KC and the other families who once lived in Cuba?