Detroit native, Aaron Hamburger, was on his way to Capitol Hill to meet with Senator Debbie Stabenow and advocate for progressive causes when he was met with an unexpected surprise. He’d shown the senator a photo of his grandmother, a Russian immigrant, when Senator Stabenow challenged Hamburger to “tell your grandmother’s story,” thus inspiring Hamburger’s first work of historical fiction, Hotel Cuba.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head, as well as two novels, Faith for Beginners, and Nirvana Is here. His writing has appeared in the New York Times; Washington Post; O, The Oprah magazine; and numerous other publications. His latest work, Hotel Cuba, was inspired by the immigration stories of his grandparents, Ethel (“Pearl”) and Morris (“Ben the Oak”).
The year is 1922. Determined to leave behind the chaos of World War I and the terror of the Russian Revolution, 27-year-old Pearl and younger sister, Frieda, leave their rural village in Russia, or what used to be Russia because their town is now occupied by Poland, and board the SS Hudson for an arduous journey across the Atlantic. After two weeks at sea, they arrive in the bustling, bright, Prohibition-era city of Havanna, Cuba.
Once in Cuba, Pearl and Frieda express their desire to join their sister, Basha, in New York, but are met with increasing difficulty as new discriminatory immigration laws prevent their passage, they struggle to learn a new language, and, ultimately, to leave the past behind. On hearing their desire to continue to America, a friend tells them, “It’s not easy. You’ll have to be determined or, you’ll have to make your America here in Hotel Cuba.”
When speaking with the author, a former MFA mentor of mine, he referred to Hotel Cuba as “a Jewish Jane Austen novel,” mentioning that the relationship of the two sisters in his book was largely inspired by Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. Older sister Pearl is sensible, sturdy, and practical, while younger sister, Frieda, is impulsive, passionate, and hopelessly romantic.
“Frieda often talked that way in the language of fairytales and Bible legends…as if she’s the heroine of a story, and noble by suffering for love. A dreamer… While Frieda lived in dreams, Pearl handled money and documents. She paid ticket agents who counted money to the last kopek. She bribed their Polish landlady with knitted socks and earnest promises to pay the balance for their room. She kept strict accounts of their meager budget, refusing to indulge her sister’s whims for penny candy or pretty stockings.”
While in Cuba, Pearl works as an expert seamstress making dresses, pants, and hats; she’s one of the best, and she knows it. Earning the nickname Madame Singer Sewing Machine, Pearl excels at her trade and hopes one day to build a future with her skill. Though Pearl has little in terms of money and earthly riches, she is happy to earn an honest living.
After a full year in Havanna, Pearl is given a final chance to make her dream a reality. “This may be her last best chance to get off this island. America, America. She thought, said, and dreamed that word for so long, she’s sick of its sound.”
Will Pearl make it to America? And if she arrives, will the journey have been worth it?
Hotel Cuba is a crisis-of-faith novel, a courageous search for home, a heartbreaking and triumphant family story of two Jewish women striving to create a new life in a world drastically different from the one they’ve known.
Toward the end of the novel, Pearl reflects on her years-long journey: “This is how life is, giving up some things to get others. You make these decisions one at a time, find the best way to push forward, and move to the next thing. It’s the opposite of making a dress, where everything is planned out before you act. Only when you look back on your life do your choices create a line, a shape, yes, a pattern.”
In one review, Hotel Cuba is said to join the ranks of Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Hotel Cuba is available for checkout at the Wickson Library as well as through the VLC. I highly recommend adding Aaron Hamburger’s Hotel Cuba to your reading list. You might even want to put it at the very top.