In 1962 when Carlos Eire and his older brother, Tony, were airlifted out of Cuba to the U.S. in Operation Pedro Pan, they marveled at the force of the takeoff. Ages 11 and 14, they thought how wonderful it would be to have chewing gum again and to take their first sip of Coke in months. They relished their first panoramic view of the ocean as they flew toward a world they imagined from TV shows. And, like all the children being airlifted unaccompanied out of Cuba at the time, they believed they'd see their parents shortly, in a matter of months.
They did not know they would not see their mother for over three years.
They did not know they would never see their father again.
In his deeply moving, riveting memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press), Carlos Eire describes what it was like to grow up privileged in pre-Castro Havana and how his childhood slowly disintegrated after the Batista government fell. When rumors began circulating that Castro would separate children from families, Eire's mother insisted on getting the boys out. This only added to the existing estrangement between Eire's parents, but their father agreed. He did not agree, however, to follow the boys, as their mother planned to do, and his willingness to part with them is something that Eire struggled for years to understand and forgive. Indeed, Eire is his mother's family name -- a name he took in adulthood.
But before the airlift -- before the steady disappearance of school friends as they slipped out of Cuba; before having his favorite movie censored; before growing numb to Castro's endless speeches -- Carlos Eire led a fairly charmed life in a paradise. It was a world of wave surfing and breadfruit fights; of seeing American movies for free; of birthday parties at luxurious homes; of swimming in lovely pools in restrictive clubs; and of glorious, blasting firecrackers that a boy was allowed to ignite himself.
Eire's childhood could only have been unique: his father, a prominent judge, believed he was the reincarnated King Louis XVI. He courted Eire's mother believing she was Marie Antoinette. He even adopted a young boy he saw on the street because he believed the boy, Ernesto, was the reincarnated Dauphin. Add to this the haunting, sometimes all too vivid and terrible, ways in which Eire was instructed in the Catholic faith and a maid who threatened Eire with voodoo curses, and it's almost impossible to believe his early childhood could have been anything but filled with mystery and drama. But some of the mystery and drama came from darker places, and his childhood was, sadly, also filled with wrenching loss and change.
Speaking from Chicago while on tour, Eire said he'd originally thought approximately 3,000 children were airlifted in Operation Pedro Pan. He was stunned to learn the figure was 14,000 and that the airlift had a name, something he hadn't known until a colleague at Yale passed along a book referencing it.
Returning to Chicago was, in a sense, a homecoming for Eire. He, Tony, and their mother settled there in 1965, after they were reunited. Though he now lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children, his mother still lives in Chicago, where she's confined to a nursing home. Eire hopes the book will be translated into Spanish in time for her to read it but fears this can't happen quickly enough. [To date, foreign rights have been sold in Germany, the U.K., Finland, and Holland]. Tony, also struggling with his health, is reading the book now.
Though Eire had thought of writing his memoir for years, it was the Elian Gonzalez incident that propelled him to the keyboard at last. He wrote the book in four months, in a process he called an "eruption" and described as "pure joy." For Eire, a professor used to writing formal histories in linear and logical fashion, writing from the heart was illuminating and refreshing. Working without any outline, he "was guided by images."
"[I'd] get an image, or a series of images, and try to make sense of them in narrative form," Eire explained.
Eire said he couldn't have written the book if he hadn't already come to grips with his experience and loss, though he added there is pain one never gets past. Still, he "thinks his parents did the right thing" and even said that he's "eternally grateful for every bad job, every bad place I've ever lived"-- forgiveness that, perhaps, arises from his deep religious convictions. Usually "tight-lipped" about the subject, especially while teaching, Eire openly discusses faith in his book and in interviews. "A series of events made me a very religious person. This [faith] is what saved me. One of the big differences between my brother and me is that my brother lost his faith. I wouldn't have survived without it."
Eire wrote Waiting for Snow in Havana as a novel and wanted the book marketed as such, and under a pseudonym. Advisors felt, though, that if the story was true it ought to be published as such. Being a shy person, Eire balked. He wanted to "hide." He also believed fiction reached more readers.
Asked about writing a sequel, Eire said he doesn't have one planned. He said, "For many, many years I thought the story I told in this book was uninteresting." He thinks the years following the airlift "seem rather unexciting" but admitted that several people have asked about a second book. The question seems to both please and surprise him.
Eire's tour, currently in progress, takes him to 14 cities nationwide. And he has had good crowds every place he goes. His most interesting experience, though, occurred in Miami Airport, where he went to buy People magazine to read a review of his book. He thanked the clerk in Spanish, and she asked about his lovely accent and whether he was Cuban. Their conversation wound around to Eire's memoir and the review, which the clerk read. Every review, Eire said, mentions his father. When finished reading, the clerk told Eire she had goose bumps and exclaimed, "I'm talking to Louis the 16th's son! Don't let anyone tell you your father was crazy. I was French in an earlier life, too!"
Eire reads different chapters on his tour, in part responding to his audiences. At Yale, where he's T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, he read the chapter about the Bay of Pigs. In Miami, at Books & Books, many airlift alums attended, including four former classmates, and so Eire read the last chapter. People had tears in their eyes. (Operation Pedro Pan has an organization based in Miami. They have featured Eire in their newsletter and have published his full tour schedule.)
Eire has only two relatives left in Havana, an aunt and uncle (aside from his adopted brother, Ernesto, with whom he's not in contact). Eire's uncle, who is 79 and works for the Ministry of Culture, read the memoir on a recent visit to the U.S. and "loved it." When he calls now, the uncle of course won't refer to the book specifically. Instead, taking one of the defining metaphors and images from the book as his reference point, he asks, "How's the lizard doing?"
And Eire always replies, "The lizard is fine."
The lizard is actually better than fine. In addition to being number six on the March/April Book Sense 76 list, Waiting for Snow in Havana is a BOMC and QPB alternate selection. Eire also has interviews scheduled on the Diane Rehm Show and Weekend All Things Considered, excellent reviews are popping up nationwide, and The Free Press plans to publish a trade paperback edition next year.
For now, Eire looks forward to getting home to his kids, from whom he has never been separated for more than eight days. He doesn't think his children (ages 14, 12, and 8) fully grasp how the publication of this book has changed their lives. But they have read the book, in a sense. While he was writing, Eire read to them from the manuscript each night (he skipped sections that might have troubled them). His kids curled up together in one bed to listen, and they loved the book. They are not alone in having been captivated by the story. -- Caitlin Hamilton