Monday, April 19, 2010

The Cigar Maker

The Cigar Maker
by Mark Carlos McGinty

(Seventh Avenue Productions / 0-615-34340-6 / 978-0-615-34340-2 / June 2010 / 464 pages / $19.95 / Kindle $9.99 / B&N $13.46)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

One of the joys of reading historical novels is that the reader is afforded the opportunity to open a window into another dimension, to venture into places, people and events – and as nearly as possible and given a writer of sufficient skill and imagination – to explore and experience them at first hand. There is even a bonus, when the author like Mark McGinty takes up the story of his ancestors, weaving together the many threads of the vibrant and lively community they lived in: the Cuban community of Ybor City, now part of Tampa, Florida, at the turn of the last century.

In basing a story on actual recorded historical incidents and real people, the reader is blessed with a narrative more incredible and fantastic than anything a writer could create of whole cloth – such as the incident that opens the story. Did it really happen, the losing bird in a cockfight in Ybor City, eleven decades ago, having its head bitten off by its humiliated owner? The writer’s grandfather insisted that it did, and thereby opens the tale of Salvador Ortiz, one-time rebel and bandit, and his fiercely proud and independent wife Olympia. Salvador is now a cigar maker, a man with a particular and valuable skill, but Cuba is torn by war and ravaged by epidemics. For the sake of their children, they move to Florida; not quite an out of the pot and into the cook=fire move, but not without perils and dangers. At first Ybor City is a safe refuge for the Ortiz family, an escape from violence and famine and disease. Alas, they have exchanged one set of challenges and risks for another set, only slightly less challenging. In the next few years, Ybor City and the cigar-making industry will be racked by strikes and violent confrontations between the cigar workers, the factory owners and the Anglo establishment. Salvador Ortiz, a modest man of flinty integrity, soft-spoken and yet capable of decisive action when the necessity calls for it, will almost by accident become a leader among his coworkers. He struck me as a reader, as being the most fully-developed character, the moral center of a world filled with either well-intentioned characters without the courage to act on their good intentions, or amoral barbarians all too eager to act on their bad ones. Salvador is an immensely appealing character, not least to his wife Olympia; the daughter of an aristocrat who nonetheless say something worthy in a man several degrees lower than she on the social scale.

The working-class Cuban √©migr√© world of Ybor City, in the first years of the Twentieth Century, is lovingly detailed in the vigorous personalities, customs, conversations, foods, festivals, and the workday world of the cigar factories. The recreational cockfights and bolita games were only a small part of the entertainments brought by the Cuban cigar workers. I had never realized that there was a substantial Cuban community in Florida that early on; I had assumed that Castro’s Revolution was largely responsible for the current Cuban Diaspora. For a window into an unexpected and fascinating world, The Cigar Maker is recommended.

See also: Mark McGinty's Blog
The Cigar Maker Website
Celia's BNN Review

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