London: He`s still waiting for snow, only now he`s doing so literally in Bloomington, Ill., not figuratively in Havana.
It`s 1963, Carlos Eire is 13 and when the snowflakes finally fall in his new corner of the world, he writes, they "snuck up on me, just like the Cuban Revolution. Except this is the best of all surprises, not the worst."
With vibrant details that practically dance off the page, Eire again offers all the wonder, fear and simple joys of childhood, but grounds them in the sadness and sensitivities of an adult who had his parents and homeland ripped away.
This book deftly continues the story of Eire`s brilliant first memoir, ‘Waiting for Snow in Havana,’ which won the 2003 National Book Award for non-fiction.
The author and his elder brother were two of the 14,064 Cuban boys and girls sent to the United States alone by their parents amid fears of communist brainwashing if they stayed. Another 80,000 Cuban kids had wanted to leave but couldn`t, Eire writes.
Known as Operation Pedro Pan, it was perhaps the largest mobilization of youngsters since the Children`s Crusade, yet "to this day, hardly anyone in the world knows that all of this happened," the author notes.
Now 59, Eire is not dying, nor does he live in Miami. He is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University. But he views boarding a KLM flight from Havana to Florida in 1962 as a death — the end of Carlos and his rebirth as Charles, a boy desperate to assimilate into American life.
A long-time author of academic works, Eire said he wrote his second memoir in just three months, same as his first.
"The only difference this time is that I knew it was unnecessary to explain all of my metaphors. I had done that with the first draft of `Waiting for Snow,` so I learned in the editing process that the professor had to shut up," he said by e-mail. "This time around, he was bound and gagged, and the pages flowed much more smoothly."
Eire`s central metaphor of lizards from his first memoir is replaced with one of Plato`s cave allegory. The United States is the realm of light, Cuba is a cave where, before New Year`s Day 1959, everything was a slightly distorted mirror-image of America — but where Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels plunged all dwellers into darkness.
There are times when Eire fans will read things they already know from "Waiting for Snow," but not many. Fleet-footed yet suburb storytelling allows the author to dart in and out of repeated anecdotes, offering new insight.
Eire`s first memoir was criticized by some for overlooking the positives of Castro`s revolution, and the author remains unabashedly anti-Castro in ‘Learning to Die in Miami.’ The book is rich for the story it tells, however, more than its politics.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Eire`s mother isn`t able to join her sons as quickly as planned. The foster family that took in Eire cannot care for him long-term, and he and his brother are shifted to a group home in a dilapidated part of Miami.
There is so little to eat that Eire becomes dangerously thin; older Cuban boys in the home steal most of the brothers` possessions; and Eire has to use electrical tape to hold his disintegrating shoes together. He had been calling himself Charles, but becomes Carlos again since everyone in the home speaks only Spanish.
The brothers eventually move in with their uncle in Bloomington, where Eire takes the name Chuck and becomes as happy as he was miserable in the group home.
His mother makes it out of Cuba, but his father stays behind. With her arrival, 1,307 days after she last saw her sons, the three move to Chicago. Eire becomes Carlos anew, describing himself as "just another Cuban," working two jobs while in high school to help the family scrape by.
Eire`s mom repeatedly asks if he`s glad she sent him away, and he always says "yes." One day, she wants to know if he`s glad she joined him in the US — prompting the move from Bloomington, where things were going so well, to a hard-scrabble life in Chicago.
Eire lies and answers, "Of course."
Losing both parents while heading into exile was devastating, but gaining one back in his adopted homeland was in some ways even harder.
First Published: Sunday, November 07, 2010, 10:01