Cuba On My Mind
Cuba, in my mind: cigars, Fidel Castro’s beard, Elian Gonzalez, and a very murky high school level comprehension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let’s get more specific and, arguably, more self-incriminating. What comes to mind when I think of pre-Castro Cuba? The Godfather: Part II. That lavish New Year’s Eve party where Michael discovers Fredo’s betrayal. Oh yes, and the actual history: Fulgencio Batista stepping down (read: fleeing), leaving Cuba to Castro.
Clearly, I am not the most informed. But seriously, as an American who was born and educated well into Castro’s rule, how much objectivity, let alone compassion, has informed my understanding of Cuba’s people and culture? With this question, and the sincere hope of expanding my mental impression, I cracked the spine of Katie Wainwright’s first novel, Cuba on My Mind.
The novel begins as Gramma Catalina is waking up, her hand being held by her grandson, Wayne Olaf. In the present, Catalina is dying; receiving hospice care in her daughter’s mansion, paid for by her indifferent son-in-law. Feeling her body shut down, and uncomfortable with the medicines and contraptions unnaturally keeping her alive, Catalina longs for her final freedom. Unsure of how much time she has left, her grandson Wayne Olaf is there, wishing to record as much of her life story as he can. And of course, Wayne has issues of his own to overcome—a twenty-one-year-old Tulane law student, buckling under his parents’ pressuring control over his professional and romantic future. Turning to one another, grandmother and grandson forge a bond that bridges their fragmented family, and allows them both to grow.
Carried largely by Catalina’s narrative of her own life, Cuba on My Mind transitions between her childhood in Banes, Cuba and the present in New Orleans. Growing up, she is the only daughter of Scotsman McAuley, who is the Administrator for the U.S. Sugar Company, and Cuban mother, called Santa Caridad (Charity) by the people. From this position of privilege, Catalina’s memories allow the reader insight into the tensions between the gringos and the Cuban people. Divided by the Banes River Bridge, under which the most destitute and dying live, Catalina’s worldview is consistently influenced by the stark difference between the pueblo civil and the American company’s private land.
Given these juxtaposing realities, and the many anecdotes from her past, I wish Wainwright would have more forcibly commented on the clear economic and social inequalities within her Banes community. Almost all Catalina recounts alludes to these discrepancies, but I believe more evocative language could have made these instances more powerful to the reader. Further, I would have loved more about the strong Cuban women in her life. Loyally cared for and protected by her fierce Nanny Carmen, “an ornery creature…peasant from the hills, a square woman strong as any man,” and her mother, Santa Caridad, who has the compassion and courage to aid the rebels, even with Batista’s knowledge. To me, these women, and the other housemaids who gossip about and care for their colonizing employers are the novel’s backbone.
Although Castro’s revolution is the novel’s historical anchor, as I read, I realized the story is much more poignantly about family—from nuclear to national. In the present, the familial moments resonated. Having lost all but one of my grandparents in recent years, I have seen their deterioration and understood the tough decisions that come with properly caring for a dying loved one. It is taxing on any family, and again, although I wish she would have delved more, I commend Wainwright for taking this on as well.
The novel’s shortcomings stem from Wainwright's attempting to do too much. As much as I can quibble about the plot being too neat at times, and characters that are a bit underdeveloped, it is clear Cuba on My Mind is a work of love and nostalgia for the author's birthplace. And for a self-proclaimed hobby writer, Wainwright didn't do all that bad.