In Jaquays’ debut historical drama, treacherous waters and armed Cuban guards await a crawfisherman transporting refugees during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
First mate Shorty is a Yankee who’s proven himself working on a crawfish boat in the Florida Keys. But Dagger, the boat’s captain, has a way to make some real money by taking advantage of the Cuban exodus and bringing people to the U.S. Shorty docks at Mariel Harbor in Cuba and waits for officials to OK the request for taking refugees. Tensions are high: law enforcement and military are between Havana and the harbor, ready to fire at locals attempting to flee the country as stowaways. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Mario, at the start of his unwelcome but mandatory military service, risks a daring escape. Jaquays’ novel features melodrama and a bit of suspense with a rich historical backdrop. The story is truly about Shorty, but the Mariel boatlift isn’t mere decoration since it drives the main plot. Mario’s flight from his squad and his dangerous swim to the harbor, for example, are highlights, and his family’s endeavor to reach American shores is equally gripping. Shorty, too, is a sympathetic protagonist; it’s abundantly clear that he cares about his passengers, befriending an elderly woman in particular, despite knowing very little Spanish. He likewise disregards his own safety to make repairs to the boat’s exterior while at sea, just to ensure that everyone reaches the U.S. Shorty’s personal story, however, is decidedly less engaging. He has a girlfriend, Kim Sue, though the narrative refers to him at least once as her fiance. Their relationship seems perfectly fine when they’re together, but later descriptions, with Kim Sue back in America, are increasingly dismissive. Their relationship is nothing more than a lead-up to Shorty’s infatuation with Cuba-born Rosa, an unquestionably worthy woman who saves someone from certain death by hypothermia. The ending provides closure for Shorty, but Jaquays smartly allows readers to see what has become (or will become) of both Rosa and Mario.
An admirable dramatization of a real-world event, with a hero who’s much better at helping others than himself.