Sunday, June 23, 2013

Struggling to leave Cuba

Struggling to leave Cuba
Emily Jennings

Jun 23, 2013 (The Free Lance-Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information
Services via COMTEX) --
AS I WAS reading "The Boy Who Said No: An Escape to Freedom," I had to
reassure myself repeatedly that this was a true story, that the main
character was ultimately successful in escaping Cuba and lived to tell
the tale.

With that knowledge, I had the hope I needed to get myself through all
the life- and-death challenges Frank Mederos endured in his quest to
reach the United States and the woman he loved.

First-time author Patti Sheehy was introduced to Mederos by his
daughter, who was hoping to make a record for their family history. But
after meeting with Mederos several times, Sheehy sug gested making the
story avail able to a broader audience. Some descriptions and dia logue
had to be fictionalized, since the story occurred so long ago and
Mederos did not have firsthand knowledge of events and conversations
that occurred when he wasn't there. Also some names have been changed to
protect fami ly members and others still living in Cuba.

As I began reading the book, my knowledge of Cuba was small. I had a
vague awareness of what had happened during the Bay of Pigs and knew the
U.S. has accepted refugees who risked their lives to leave Castro and
communism behind.

How little I knew made Mederos' story especially fas cinating. The
reader watches Fidel Castro's successful takeover of the corrupt Batista
government. Would life be better now? There is hope, blended with worry.

One of the first things on Castro's agenda was to elimi nate illiteracy
in Cuba. As he took control, only 41 percent of Cubans could read. After
one year, Castro declared Cuba free of illiteracy.

But Mederos' story shines a different light on Castro's efforts.
Castro's campaign re quired 100,000 youth "volun teers," and Mederos was
one of them. At age 13, he was forced to leave his family in Havana and
travel on a cattle car with other young boys to the Sierra Maestra, the
wildest, most remote part of the country.

Soldiers used their rifles to nudge the boys through the jungle to the
farms of people who were as uninterested in having another mouth to feed
as the boys were to be there. Mederos was left, for 10 months, with a
Haitian family and instructed to "Show 'em the books so they understand."

Mederos' story continues, and every page is riveting. His escape from
this communist country was successful, thanks to many who gener ously
risked their own lives to help him. Once in the U.S., the story
continues, but readers must wait for the sequel, still being written, to
reach the end of this journey.

Emily Jennings is on the newsroom staff of The Free Lance-Star.

THE BOY WHO SAID NO: An Escape to Freedom

By Patti Sheehy

(Oceanview, $26.95, 330 pp.)

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