In this epic debut novel, an ambitious American businessman operates in Cuba during some of its most volatile years.
When Charles Booth is only 3 years old, his father dies in a forest fire that consumes the property he owns in Wisconsin. At the time, Charlie is living in Chicago with his pregnant mother. Twenty years later, compelled by a desire to better understand the father he never knew and against his mother’s wishes, Charlie travels to Wisconsin to claim what is left of his father’s real estate holdings. Despite lacking any experience, he makes an entrance into the lumber business—his father’s area of commercial expertise—and quickly becomes a shareholder and foreman for the Shanagolden Lumber Company. Charlie is both a quick learner and assiduous worker, and successful as a result, but he’s anxious to start his own business. The revolution in Cuba at the close of the 19th century and the American presence that fills the vacuum left by the expulsion of Spain present potentially lucrative opportunities for those investors with a stomach for risk. Charlie moves to Cuba with his wife, Jenny—she is a valuable partner because of her fluency in Spanish—and he buys land on the Isle of Pines, rich in pine trees. But Charlie eventually discovers that even with the American annexation of Cuba—and partly because of it—political instability threatens his business interests. Many see the arriving Americans as invaders more than liberators. In addition, his marriage is imperiled by the pain of prolonged absences from Jenny as well as her “gnawing jealousy” and suspicions that he has been unfaithful.
Ehlinger displays an extraordinary command of the historical period that includes the geopolitical and economic currents. Even more impressively, he supplies a sensitive but synoptic account of the internecine divisions within Cuba at the time that became battle lines—differing political, ideological, and racial allegiances so sharply drawn that violent conflict seemed inevitable. Both Charlie and Jenny are largely naive when they first land in Cuba; even late in the novel, he can confidently declare: “We came to save Cuba, save it from itself, and we are well along to accomplishing that.” If anything about Ehlinger’s rendering sounds a false note, it’s the painfully slow process of revelation for two characters otherwise depicted as not only worldly, but intellectually sober as well. While the author’s writing is always lucid, that reliable delivery of clarity is rarely accompanied by literary style; in fact, the bloodless lack of embellishment sometimes seems incongruent with the story’s high drama. His true authorial gift is characterization—it’s rare one encounters a novel so well-populated with such richly drawn dramatic personae, a complex tale unburdened by lazily conceived caricatures. But Ehlinger would have benefited from an expert editor—he lingers far too long on the minute details of this or that business transaction, and as a result the book is needlessly long (over 500 pages). In addition, the genuinely exciting drama is meted out too frugally, interrupted by distracting detours.
A remarkable history of revolutionary Cuba that could have been shorter and more tightly developed.