Alterations & Island of the White Rose


Alterations, by Rita Plush (Penumbra Publishing), who’s had a house in East Hampton for over 25 years, is a great collection of stories in which the author shifts from a group of domestic tales full of Yiddishkeit (“Brooklyn Brisket” is the first offering), starting with a young girl  (the author moves easily from third to first person point of view), to five linked stories that conclude the volume and evidence Plush’s skill in creating a male point of view. The tales, which originally appeared in various literary magazines, stand alone, but as a collection “come full circle” as explorations of a common theme—the aching need for family. Plush knows when not to resolve delusions or disappointments and when to leave readers with an open-ended, haunting sense of curiosity. As Jack Paul in the concluding stories muses, “When you had it in your mind [people] knew only one song, they turned around and sang you two others.” Life’s like that; ragged, leaving you more times than not waiting for an expected or hoped for denouement which may or may not come.

All 18 stories in the collection (is this number an accident? In Hebrew, the symbol “18,” or chai, means living) imaginatively and cleverly explore how characters are altered by their circumstances—some heartbreakingly so. Will there be a dry eye after reading “Love, Mona?” Plush manages to integrate specialty lore here, about woodworking, not to mention the wholesale clothing business and interior design industry. She also knows how to capture attention immediately, as seen in the opening of “The Blatts”—“When I was a teenager and knew everything, I lived with my family in a modest plastic slip-covered house between two neighborhoods: one very expensive, the other run down.” Each detail opens up as the story develops.

The wonder of these stories is how Plush constructs different characters and situations with ear-perfect rhythms and silences and fashions images that spot-on reflect various cultures, classes and ages. Then, again, those who have read Plush’s novel Lily Steps Out (2012) with its richly drawn complex central character who finds her voice and identity after years of going along, it’s no wonder. In the last tale, “Feminine Products,” Lily makes a welcome cameo.

Cubans, who used to constitute a significant population in this country—largely due to the first wave of largely wealthy and professional immigrants fleeing Castro in the late ’50s—are now scattered or subsumed into other Latino or Hispanic communities. But Cuban culture remains distinct, and the political influence of first and second generations continues to grow. Castro, however, remains a controversial figure for many, and the success of the revolution still prompts heated debate. Like others who experienced or know about the cruelty and corruption of President Fulgencio Batista (a time when Meyer Lansky also ruled) and were sympathetic to the overthrow of his regime in 1958 (Hemingway was still alive), R. Ira Harris, an attorney living in California and a long-time watcher of the struggle of the Cuban people, offers an ambiguous assessment of the promises and betrayals of the revolution. His timely debut novel, Island of the White Rose (Bridge Works), which is set in 1958, explores the attraction and terrible aftermath of the revolution when, for many, one tyranny came to replace another.

Harris centers his tale on Father Pedro Villanueva, 34, the son of a well off and highly regarded family in Havana whose mother insisted he become a priest. His commitment to the church is incidental, claiming neither his heart nor head, especially because of the silence of the church to oppose Batista’s brutalities. Aimless, attracted to women and a lover of sailing, his 40-foot sloop docked at the elegant Havana Yacht Club is named after Jose Marti’s (b. 1853) poem, “I Cultivate A White Rose” (Pete Seeger drew on the poem for “Guantanamera”)—Pedro finds himself increasingly involved with members of a revolutionary cell, and soon he is in the mountains with Fidel, Raul and Che, a reluctant participant in violence (a rose has thorns) but enamored by the cause of the Fidelistas.

Although the narrative seems predictable (Pedro’s evolution in the context of his abiding ethics and his growing disillusion), and some scenes come off naïve or awkward  (Pedro sees his beloved after a painful absence but postpones lovemaking for playing a duet with her “Kol Nidre”), and the style rarely rises above a determined formality or stiltedness (meant to convey foreignness?), the story tackles an important theme: the need for revolution but the corruption of ideals, and it admirably surprises with an ending that is both unexpected and thought-

More from Our Sister Sites