49 pages 1 hour read

Ruth Behar

Letters from Cuba

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Letters From Cuba (2020) is a historical fiction novel for middle grade readers by Ruth Behar. On the eve of World War II, Jewish immigrants 12-year-old Esther and her Papa work hard in Cuba to bring the rest of their family safely across from Poland. Esther tells her story in the form of letters to her little sister, Malka. Esther grows to love her new home and the kindness of a diverse group of friends, but Nazi hatred and antisemitism are present even in tolerant Cuba. Behar explores themes of The Difficulties of the Immigrant Experience, The Benefits of Cross-Cultural Understanding, and Developing Self-Knowledge Through Writing. Behar, a Pura Belpré Award-winning Cuban American author, was inspired by a similar journey to Cuba made by her own grandmother, Esther. Letters From Cuba received starred reviews from the School Library Journal and Kirkus.

This guide refers to the 2021 Nancy Paulsen Books paperback edition.

Content Warning: This guide discusses the Holocaust and antisemitism.

Plot Summary

In December of 1937, Esther writes to Papa begging to join him in Cuba. He traveled there to earn money to support the family back in Govorovo, Poland, after growing antisemitism forced him out of his business. Papa agrees. Esther is almost 12—the eldest in a family of three brothers and a sister—when she travels alone by steamship to Cuba. Esther writes letters to her sister, Malka, documenting everything about her new experiences. During her difficult journey, Esther meets other Jewish people leaving Europe to be with families in other countries. One older gentleman gives her a gold pocket watch. Esther is thrilled to join Papa and enchanted by Cuba, with its warm climate and friendly population.

Papa and Esther settle in rural Agramonte, where Papa rents a small house. There, Papa and Esther work together as traveling peddlers selling religious statutes and sandals. Papa and Esther are devout Jews, and Papa dislikes selling the “idols,” but Esther knows that God will understand and that they must adapt to their new lives in Cuba.

Esther and Papa meet Ma Felipa, a formerly enslaved person who worships Yemayá, whom Esther understands is like the Virgin Mary in other cultures. Ma Felipa’s granddaughter, Manuela, is near Esther’s age. Manuela’s father, Mario José, works at the nearby sugar mill. The families become friends. Esther also makes friends with Juan Chang, who runs the local Chinese grocery store, and his nephew, Francisco. Esther also befriends the wealthy and kind Señora Graciela, whose family owns the sugar mill, and her husband, Doctor Pablo. Señora Graciela gives Esther a book by Cuban poet José Martí. The poems inspire Esther. Señora Graciela’s brother, Señor Eduardo, however, hates Jews. He harasses Papa and Esther.

While in Havana getting more goods from shopkeeper Zvi Mandelbaum to peddle in Agramonte, Esther and Papa visit Rifka Rubenstein’s fabric shop. Rifka is a fellow Jew. Esther is thrilled to get fabric and sew herself a new dress more appropriate for the Cuban climate. Mama impatiently taught Esther to sew, but Esther wants to see what she can accomplish on her own. News from Europe is not good: There is increasing antisemitism against Jews as the Nazis gain power.

Esther’s friendship with Manuela grows. Manuela tells Esther about the ceiba tree in their yard, which holds a chain belonging to a formerly enslaved person. Esther observes a poignant religious ceremony centered around the tree with drumming, dancing, and singing. Esther also grows closer to Francisco, who is a talented artist and gives Esther some of his drawings. Papa cautions Esther to remember she is a Jew, but Esther is confident in her faith. She and Papa reverently observe Jewish holy days with prayer, fasting, celebration, and reflection on the history of their ancestors. Esther’s faith does not stop her from appreciating other cultures.

Esther makes dresses for her friends, and Señora Graciela is so pleased that she gives Esther a sewing machine. Now, Esther can sell dresses and make money more quickly. Rifka lets Esther sell dresses in her shop. Rifka plans to move to New York and bring her family over from Poland.

Esther’s stylish dresses gain the attention of Isabel de la Fuente, who works for the expensive department store El Encanto. She offers Esther a lucrative contract to design dresses for the store. Esther and Papa are thrilled.

Señor Eduardo continues to intimidate Papa and Esther. One time, he threatens Papa and takes all their money. Another time, he knocks Papa down. Doctor Pablo supports Esther and Papa. He vows that they will not allow Señor Eduardo to bring Nazi hatred to Cuba. Esther invites all her new friends to a Passover seder, and the disparate group bonds. They form the Anti-Nazi Society of Agramonte. Workers at the sugar mill strike for equity and better treatment. All the workers join the Anti-Nazi Society. After learning about Kristallnacht, the Anti-Nazi Society holds a march and rally in support of Jewish immigrants and against Nazi hatred.

Esther’s dresses sell well at El Encanto, but her contract ends when Isabel de la Fuente leaves the store. Esther tries to sell her gold pocket watch to earn the last money needed to reunite the family, but Zvi Mandelbaum declares that Jews should help each other and gives her the money instead. Rifka, bound for New York, gives Papa her Havana apartment and puts Papa in charge of the shop for half of the profit. Papa and Esther now have a home for their family.

Mama, Esther’s brothers, and Malka arrive from Cuba in January of 1939. Papa and Esther are distraught that Papa’s mother, Bubbe, did not want to leave Poland and refused to join them. Malka, unhappy about leaving Bubbe, experiences depression. As Malka and Esther read the letters Esther wrote for her, Malka improves. The girls visit Agramonte, and Malka is welcomed by all of Esther’s friends. Malka finally releases her sadness, and the sisters grow close again.

The 2021 edition of Letters From Cuba includes a list of resources for additional information on both Cuban and Jewish history and a list of children’s novels about the Holocaust and the immigrant experience.

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