Sunday Books: ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Vanishing Maps’

Cinnamon Girl

by Trish Macenulty

Published by Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama (Release date: September 8, 2023), Paperback – $19.95, 316 pages
Paperback edition

Reviewed By Drew Gallagher

Trish Macenulty’s new young adult novel Cinnamon Girl is unlikely to ever make it onto the shelves of the school libraries in Spotsylvania County. And that is a shame.

(And as I thought about the Neil Young song that was the basis for the novel’s title I realized that the song “Cinnamon Girl” is probably not suitable for Spotsylvania County schools either because Young’s band was named Crazy Horse and Crazy Horse was a Native American who resented the genocide being inflicted upon his people. Crazy Horse rebelled against the thievery of his oppressors, as one might, and ended up killing many soldiers at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Killing of white people, especially heroes of the Civil War, is not to be tolerated in Spotsylvania County. Even though, of course, George Armstrong Custer probably killed a few native Virginians during his service to the Union. Reverence gets complicated.)

Macenulty’s novel deals with racism as well as sexual assault, just to name a few of her plot developments, and those subjects are verboten in Spotsylvania because those types of things never happen to people under the age of 18.

But in “Cinnamon Girl,” these things do happen to 15-year-old Eli Burnes. Some would also like to think that unarmed black men were never gunned down by white police officers in Georgia during the race riots of the 1960s, but Eli bears witness to such an atrocity and it changes her perspective on life.

Some school board members and one parent in particular have argued that the children of Spotsylvania County do not need their perspectives considered or changed by books. We also don’t need to educate them on the aforementioned genocide, racism, or the war in Viet Nam, because they are merely children.

Some of them teenagers who, 60 years ago, would have been the same age as the boys who were sent to Southeast Asia to be killed for politicians who were also afraid of books and songs.

Neither the Florida-based Macenulty nor her entertaining book need to be dragged into the Spotsylvania County School Board’s war on books, but it is a travesty when books like Cinnamon Girl are withheld from a young adult audience who could benefit from exposure to the history and story contained within.

Cinnamon Girl should not be a casualty of an overbearing elected body and I’d like to think that there are school districts in the land of the free that would willingly put Cinnamon Girl on their library shelves. It is a tale well told, and one that should reverberate with young adult audiences.

Eli Burnes goes through more tumult in a year than any child should have to endure in the entirety of their teenage years, but it is naïve and detrimental to think that teenagers are not exposed to racism, loss, and sexual situations not of their choosing.

Eli’s perseverance is to be admired, and to act as though this fictional account is inappropriate for kids with cell phones always at the ready is absurd. Macenulty’s writing is crisp and the pace is perfect for attention spans that seem to grow shorter by the hour.

To crudely paraphrase Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “I want kids to read Cinnamon Girl, I could be happy the rest of my life if they were allowed to read Cinnamon Girl. Seems like a small ask.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second most prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.


VANISHING MAPS

by Cristina Garcia

Published by Knopf, Paperback – $28, 272 pages
Hardback edition
Kindle edition

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish

In early 2016, President Obama loosened travel restrictions for Americans who wished to visit Cuba. I was fortunate to go there that year with a National Geographic group. We visited Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and many small towns. The people I met were friendly and curious, and the meals we shared, the art we discussed and viewed, opened eyes on both sides.

Before that trip, I read a novel by Cristina Garcia titled Dreaming in Cuban. I loved the stories of three generations of Cuban women, and how each reacted to the revolution and political situation in that country. Garcia has now written about those characters again in her new book, Vanishing Maps. It is set 20 years after the first book, and since I will be visiting Cuba early next year, I was excited to read this sequel. In hindsight, I wish she has left me to create my own scenarios for those people. I don’t much like what they’ve become.

Celia, the matriarch, remains in Havana, in love with both Fidel Castro and the Spaniard who left her heartbroken decades ago. Her husband now dead, Celia plans a reunion with her lover in Granada. Lourdes now lives in Miami and becomes actively involved in the Elian Gonzales incident. Pilar, her daughter is now a mother herself, raising Azul (perhaps the only character I liked in this book).

Others from the first book have also faced major changes. The little boy Ivanito is now La Ivanita, a drag queen in Berlin. He is haunted – literally – by his dead mother Felicia. Irina lives in Moscow where she is a successful entrepreneur designing and selling sportswear and lingerie. And she finds out she has a twin sister.

I do like the concept Garcia uses as the basis for this book: the revolution and fall of the Soviet Union scattered Cuban people all over the globe, thus the maps they knew from their homeland have vanished or changed. I lived in Florida during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Castro emptied the prisons and sent “degenerates” by ship to Miami. And I followed the lives of many Cubans who ended up creating their own version of Little Havana there.

But I had never thought about those who moved to and were welcomed by the USSR or other places in Europe. All were looking for a new sense of identity and place. Some found that, but many never did.

Readers who are intrigued are urged to read Garcia’s first book before this one. Vanishing Maps is a stand-alone book, but reading them together will provide a better sense of the wholeness of each character. Or if time is short, just read Dreaming in Cuban.