It’s 1961 in Cuba. Fidel Castro has been in power for two years. Posters appear in schools asking for an army of voluntary teachers aged 10-19 to spread literacy countrywide within twelve months. Idealistic and bookish 13-year-old Lora, who feels restricted by her mother’s expectations to do with gender and circumstance, is determined to go. Horrified, her parents refuse, but her grandmother intervenes. Isn’t this what Castro’s revolution was for, in which Lora’s uncle died: to make a better world for everyone in Cuba?
After three months of training, the ‘army’ of Brigadistas are delivered into remote mountainous regions. Here each will live and work with a campesino (peasant farming family) and teach them to read and write.
Told in the first person, the novel charts Lora’s experience, a huge learning curve. There’s the Santana family she comes to love and the camaraderie of local Brigadistas, but the violence between counterrevolutionaries opposed to Castro’s regime and the militia is never far away. Despite the danger, she is determined not to let her country down and to succeed. By the end of 1961, the official literacy rate in Cuba rose from 60% to 96% and the UN declared Cuba an illiteracy-free nation.
As a coming of age novel, Paterson’s book is easy to read with bite-sized chapters. It’s a compelling fictional account of an historical event, but can feel slightly didactic at times; as if you were reading a report written after the event rather than experiencing the year with her.