Author Tags: Kidlit & Young Adult, Local History, Travel, Women

Anyone who knows about Cuban history in depth can tell you there could not have been a successful Cuban Revolution without the thoroughly admirable Celia Sánchez, Fidel Castro’s lover, who handled the organizational aspects of the otherwise chaotic Castro brothers’ uprising and, equally important, kept Fidel’s monstrous ego in check. In Rosa Jordan’s novel The Woman She Was (Brindle & Glass 2012) we meet Celia Cantú, a pediatrician in modern Cuba, named after Celia Sánchez, who scours the island to find her 16-year-old niece Liliana, hoping she can prevent her from turning into one more jintera (prostitute) who gets American dollars from tourists. While present-day Celia searches from popular tourist destinations to the Sierra Maestre range where Celia Sánchez and Fidel first became lovers, she herself must choose between lovers—Luis, a high-level bureaucrat in Havana or her former fiancé, Joe, who has returned from Miami. The situation is complicated by the fact that Joe and Luis are competitive brothers and the Celia feels her mind and body being 'taken over' by Celia Sánchez, the unsung heroine of the Cuban Revolution. Joe's arrival from Miami, with lots of money at his disposal, and Liliana's teenage turbulence, force the contemporary Celia to examine the discrepancy between her country's ideals and its reality. The novel succeeds exceedingly well in evoking the intricacies of everyday life in Cuba.

Rosa Jordan's adult novel Far From Botany Bay retells the historic story of Mary Broom who, at age 21, was sentenced to hang for the crime of stealing a cloak. When her sentence was commuted to transportation “upon the sea, beyond the seas,” she was sent to Australia as one of the first European to reach that continent and reside in the prison colony known as “Botany Bay.” After two years of extreme privation and near-starvation, she escaped in 1791 and undertook a remarkable journey back to England with the help of eight men under her command.

Born on June 4, 1939 in Ropesville, Texas, Rosa Jordan is an "internationalist" who grew up in Florida and holds a B.A. degree from UCLA (University of California/Los Angeles) and an M.A. degree from the University of Guanajuato in Mexico. She moved to Rossland, B.C. in 1974. She is the author of Rossland: The First 100 Years (Lefevre/ Heritage Trust, 1996) with Derek Choukalos, and two travel books, Dangerous Places: Travels on the Edge (Pottersfield Press, 1997) and Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba (Lonely Planet, 2002) with Derek Choukalos, as well as several works of fiction.

Her first novel for children, Lost Goat Lane, became the basis for a Showtime movie called The Sweetest Gift, broadcast in 1998. Republished by Peachtree Publishers (2004) and (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005), it's an unusual story of racial prejudice in a small Florida town as it's gradually understood over the course of one summer by a white girl, Kate, from a very poor family. Kate's mother is always away at work, her older brother Justin keeps threatening to run away, and Kate's younger brother keeps straying towards the canal that's filled with alligators. Then her goat named Sugar runs off... Together with a glamourous and sophisticated black girl, Ruby, who has returned for the summer from school in New York, Kate tries to operate a fledgling candy business. Ultimately she learns to appreciate the struggles of a tightly-knit black family in the southern U.S. and how close-mindedness can be as destructive as prejudice. Lost Goat Lane was nominated for the 2006-07 Chocolate Lily Award, and was a finalist for the 2005 Silver Birch Award, and the 2005 Red Maple Award.

Jordan's follow-up volumes of juvenile fiction are The Goatnappers (F&W, 2007) and The Last Wild Place (F&W, 2009) about boy's efforts to save a family of wild panthers that has been driven out of their home in the Everglades and dangerously close to human settlement.

In Wild Spirits (2010), a novel for young adults, Jordan tells the story of a young woman who, after a bank robbery leaves her too traumatized to continue work as a teller, retreats to a farm and rescues and cares for injured and orphaned wildlife, including two baby racoons. In the process, she befriends an eccentric and lonely 14-year-old boy who ends up saving her life.

Rosa Jordan has worked for a decade as the social justice program director for Earthways Foundation, which has supported her in developing a jungle cat reserve in Ecuador’s Choco rainforest and a food security program in a war-ravaged Mayan village in the Guatemala highlands.

AWARDS: LOST GOAT LANE, Silver Birch Honor Book Award.


THE WOMAN SHE WAS (novel). Brindle & Glass, 2012. 978-1-926972-46-6 $21.95

WILD SPIRITS (novel). Dundurn 2010 978-1-55488-729-3

FROM BOTANY BAY (novel). Oolichan Books, 2008. 978-088982-249-8 $22.95

THE GOATNAPPERS. Hardback: Peachtree in Atlanta, 2007. Paperback: Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Toronto, 2007.

LOST GOAT LANE. Hardback: Peachtree in Atlanta, 2004. Paperback: Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Toronto, 2005.

CYCLING CUBA. Lonely Planet, Melbourne, Australia. 2002.

DANGEROUS PLACES: TRAVELS ON THE EDGE. Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia. 1997.

ROSSLAND: THE FIRST 100 YEARS. Lefevre/BC Heritage. 1995.

[Alan Twigg BCBW 2012] "Local History" "Kidlit" "Cuba" "Travel" "Women"

Dangerous Places: Travels on the Edge (Pottersfield $18.95)

Rosa Jordan's Dangerous Places: Travels on the Edge (Pottersfield $18.95) is about one woman's journey to places that are anything but safe. Jordan believes danger is an inherent part of life and contributes to our understanding of the world. Her fast-paced autobiographical memoir documents her travels to Mexico, Cuba, Guyana, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. She is currently establishing a jungle cat refuge in the Amazon.

[BCBW 1997]

Far from Botany Bay

Far from Botany Bay by Rosa Jordan (Oolichan Books, $22.95)

Thelma and Louise have met their match in Mary Bryant, née Broad. Mary is far more interesting, partially because she’s not mere fiction. In real life, 1787, she was a Cornish convict, one of the first to be sent to a fledgling prison colony in Australia, and, four years later she was one of the first to lead a successful escape.

Some escape! At sea for sixty-six days and traveling five thousand kilometers, she led eight men, with her 2 babes in arms, as they rowed and sailed a 20’ longboat through the infamous Coral Sea, bristling with the reefs that had wrecked many a boat. Her ultimate goal was Kupang, on the island of Timor in Dutch-controlled Indonesia, and armed with compass and chart, she led them right to it. En route they survived starvation, thirst, aggressive natives, a violent storm, alligators and illness. While doing all this, Mary also had to pander to her insecure husband’s sulks at not being leader, do the cooking, wash the dishes and put the children to bed. Sound familiar?

The escape is by far the most gripping part of the book, but most of us (read women) will avidly read on, wanting a happy ending for this feisty young woman, who was shipped off to purgatory at 21, raped repeatedly before and during the voyage, and finally married to a drunken lout she didn’t love, in order to protect herself.

The escape is surprising enough, engineered as it was by an uneducated young woman with a chart and a compass, but the fact that a group of convicts in those days even allowed her to be ‘captain’ is just as surprising. This is Chick Lit at its best. We love to read about a female super achiever who, even though she’s victimized and battered, rises up again and again.

No wonder, then, that Mary’s story has been made into a musical, a successful play in 1989 (Boswell for the Defense), and a 4-hour TV mini series shown in Australia and England in 2005 and 2006.

She’s the subject of at least nine books, but according to Far From Botany Bay author Rosa Jordan, it was the presidential address for the Elizabethan Club of Yale University, “Boswell and the Girl from Botany Bay,” that inspired her to write this story. She managed to obtain a copy from the university library, and once inspired, sought out primary sources at the British Museum, including newspaper accounts from 1792.

You may be wondering what the famous journal writer, James Boswell, has to do with all this. He turns out to be the deus ex machina—the badly needed saviour. More I will not say.

Although Jordan has clearly gone the extra fathom in researching facts for her narrative non-fiction, her book appears more heavily weighted toward narrative, especially compared to the other publications. She creates a love interest for Mary, and dreams up friends for this larger-than-life heroine as well —friends like Colleen, and Bados, the flute-playing slave from Barbados. Jordan also fictionalizes a relationship Mary has with a Dutch captain, trading her body for what she needs for her escape.

Jordan has also come up with a far more sympathetic crime for her heroine to have committed. Mary has gone to prison for stealing a cloak so that she can take it to warm her dying mother. In reality, however, Mary was a career thief.

On the non-fiction side, she really did marry Will, a fisher- man and a drinker, and they were both Cornish. The incredibly harsh and frequently unjust punishments meted out are also historically accurate, and the ships involved are all as described. Mary really did have two children called Charlotte and Emanuel, the first by a rapist on the boat, and the second by her husband. What befalls the escapees once they actually complete their amazing journey and reach Indonesia also appears to be factual.

It’s a good story, especially for women. How many men, after all, went to see Thelma and Louise without being dragged there?

Jordan, author of Dangerous Places: Travels on the Edge, and Lonely Planet’s Cycling Cuba, is clearly an unusual woman herself. She calls herself an internationalist, and in her capacity as social justice programme director for Earthways Foundation, she has helped to develop a jungle cat reserve in Ecuador’s Choco rainforest and a food security programme in a war-torn Mayan village in Guatemala. When not traveling, she lives and writes in Rossland.

In addition to presenting us with a strong, Christ-like literary and historical figure, and crafting an un-put-downable plot, Jordan portrays the inhumane way in which prisoners, and especially women, were treated in earlier times. The men we meet are pretty grim, often operating on primeval instincts. It’s perhaps to balance this unattractive historical gender portrayal that she introduces Mary’s love, John, as an intelligent and gentle Canadian clerk.
Good to know that the male has evolved considerably in the last few hundred years. You’ve come a long way, baby!

A lot of us will be awaiting the chick flick. 9780889822498

--review by by Cherie Thiessen

[BCBW 2008" "Fiction"

The Woman She Was (Brindle & Glass $21.95)
Article (2012)

from Rosa Jordan

Now that Fidel Castro has turned into an ailing ex-dictator in sweat pants, courting the blessings of the quivering autocrat, Pope Benedict, perhaps the world is ready to be curious about Castro’s lover and advisor Celia Sánchez, a.k.a. “The Mother of the Revolution,” a thoroughly admirable social reformer who served as Castro’s conscience until her death in 1980.

Sánchez helped liberate Fidel Castro from prison, salvaged his failed invasion and handled logistics for the Castro brothers’ uprising. Without her, a few rag-tag intellectuals and peasant soldiers could never have ousted the U.S.-backed and Mafia-serving dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Equally important, it was Celia Sánchez who kept Castro’s monstrous ego in check and encouraged him to pursue progressive educational and health policies.

In her new novel The Woman She Was (Brindle & Glass $21.95), Rosa Jordan introduces Celia Sánchez through the life and times of a contemporary Havana paediatrician, named Celia Cantú, as she juggles the complexities of her work in Havana with her fractured love life—two competitive brothers and a secret lover in the mountains.

The Woman She Was provides a vivid and complex representation of what it’s like to live inside Cuba, outside the realm of tourism.

The story gains drama when Dr. Cantú goes on a quest across Cuba in search of a missing niece—thereby blending a travelogue into the narrative—as Jordan skillfully blends historical information and the nuances of Cuban manners.

Dr. Cantú is scouring the island to find her 16-year-old niece Liliana, hoping she can prevent her from turning into one more jinetera out to hustle tourists. Simultaneously, Dr. Cantú is being pressured to choose between two would-be lovers who are brothers—Luis, a high-level bureaucrat in Havana, or her former fiancé, Joe, who has returned from Miami.

Joe’s arrival from Miami, with lots of money at his disposal, and Liliana’s teenage turbulence, force the contemporary Celia to examine the discrepancy between her country’s ideals and its often frustrating reality, thereby encouraging her to summon the example of Celia Sánchez to give her strength.

The use of Celia Sánchez’s photo on the cover of the novel leads the reader to want more information about Sánchez than has been provided in the book’s dense, dialogue-laden 376 pages. And for anyone knowing precious little about Cuba, Jordan’s use of flashbacks and hallucinations to evoke the heroism of Sánchez’s namesake could be a bit of a stretch. But The Woman She Was is nonetheless an ambitious accomplishment: a smart and convincing novel about the politics of sexuality as much as a panorama of Cuba’s countryside and politics.

Having already written two travel guides to Cuba, Cycling Cuba (Lonely Planet 2002) and Cuba’s Best Beaches (CreateSpace 2011), Jordan has again highlighted Celia Sánchez in her new non-fiction offering, Cuba Unspun (Oolichan $22.95), a travel memoir due in October.

Jordan has explored the island many times since 1996, camping in a military compound, cycling through hurricane-hit towns, spending a rainy night in the jungle without a tent, picking up hundreds of hitchhikers, once coming face-to-face with Fidel Castro, and visiting various sites that commemorate Celia Sánchez.

So who was Celia? We asked Rosa Jordan for this summary.

Born in 1920, Celia Sánchez Manduley grew up in eastern Cuba. By 1950 she was already organizing for the overthrow of Cuba’s undemocratic regime—this while Fidel Castro, six years younger and 1000 kilometres away at the University of Havana, was still embroiled in student politics.

In 1953, when Castro and his followers were apprehended after a botched raid on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, it was Celia Sánchez who organized island-wide protests that resulted in the rebels’ release. Fidel promptly went to Mexico to prepare for another challenge to the Batista dictatorship. Sánchez, who was by then communicating with Castro but had not yet met him, remained in Cuba to lay the groundwork for a guerrilla war. By the time of the invasion (December, 1956), she had convinced him to launch the uprising at the end of the island she knew so well: the rugged Sierra Madre.

At the time and place designated for the rebels’ arrival, Sánchez was waiting on the beach with trucks to transport Castro and his 81 men to safe houses in the mountains. However, they got lost, not making landfall till two days later and in the wrong place—a mistake that resulted in a bloodbath at the hands of the Batista army. The 16 survivors, scattered, disoriented, and without supplies in rugged, unfamiliar terrain, were rescued by Celia’s friends.

Despite Fidel’s record of two disastrous military engagements, Celia convinced her co-conspirators that he should command the rebel army—fighters she and her people would have to recruit since most of his had been killed. However, she personally took charge of finances, strategy, organization, community relations, and about everything else essential to a successful guerrilla war.

Dictator Batista confirmed her threat to his regime by putting a $75,000 bounty on her head. Ché Guevara, commenting in his diary on a false report that Sánchez had been captured, wrote, “Celia was our [the guerrillas] only known safe contact… her detention would have meant isolation for us.” The CIA reported, “Celia Sánchez is one of the most powerful figures in the 26th of July Movement. All functions not strictly military are under her jurisdiction. All intelligence agents report to her.” Tete Puebla, an officer in the rebel army and now a general in the Cuban military, mentioned in her memoir an astonishing array of activities that were supervised or personally handled by Sánchez during the war, concluding simply, “Celia organized everything.”

Sánchez’s efforts to bring a true social revolution to Cuba continued after the war. While the men in government were dealing with terrorist attacks, economic woes, a US-backed invasion, and other foreign policy issues, she focussed on projects that would improve the lives of ordinary Cubans: housing, hospitals, schools, and much more. Her ideas were highly original and she implemented them with astounding alacrity.

As a doctor’s daughter, she knew the effect of parasites on children who ran barefoot in the same mud as pigs. She educated herself on shoe-making and had factories built because, she said, no child, however poor, should have to go barefoot. Free shoes were soon available to all Cuban children, and still are.

She had hospitals designed specially for children. One, on beautiful Tarará beach, would later treat more child victims of the Chernobyl disaster than all G-8 countries together. Today Cuban doctors involved in Operación Milagro use the facility to provide blind children from poor countries with free eye operations and post-operative care.

Celia Sánchez had the huge Copelia ice cream parlour built as a gathering place for Habaneros and she created Parque Lenin, Havana’s equivalent of NYC’s Central Park, to give urban families easy access to recreational activities among flowers, meadows, lakes, and trees—especially trees, which she regarded as sacred.

She established municipal museums all over the island, and scores of campismos—simple huts in the mountains and on beautiful beaches where families and young people could stay practically free. She designed cottages built of native materials to sit on tiny islands in Laguna del Tesores, a unique retreat still enjoyed by Cuban honeymooners.
These were among hundreds of projects she created, constructed, and completed in the 21 years she lived after the war. In A Butterfly Against Stalin, Celia Hart wrote of Sánchez, “She had the magical power to join heaven
and earth without showing off. She was a perfect mediator between the work of the revolution, its people and

The inflexible Cuban bureaucracy that grew after the war was Sánchez’s great enemy. Had she lived longer she might have prevailed over demands for conformity and political correctness that often took precedence over humanitarian considerations. But her death in 1980 left Castro and the Cuban revolution to be influenced by others.
Close friends of Fidel have said that from the time he met Celia in 1957 until lung cancer claimed her 23 years later, he never made an important decision without her concurrence.

Shortly before her death, she advised him to marry a friend of theirs, Dalia Soto del Valle, which he later did. Although he and Dalia have now been married more than three decades and have six sons, Fidel often retreats to the unpretentious apartment he shared with Celia for 21 years, sometimes to prepare a meal for special friends like Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez and his wife, but more often, it is said, simply to be alone.

In Cuba you can find books and articles about Celia Sánchez, three small museums, some impressive monuments,
and scores of charming handcrafted memorials. Cubans probably find it ironic that most foreigners, if they have heard of Sánchez at all, suppose she was just Fidel’s secretary or possibly his lover, and have no idea how powerful and pivotal she was.

Woman 978-1-926972-46-6;
Unspun 978-0-88982-289-4

[BCBW 2012]