A young woman's imprisonment in 1896 Havana becomes headline fodder for two American newspaper giants fueling U.S. involvement in Cuba's rebellion against brutal Spanish rule. But the story behind the headlines, as told by Chanel Cleeton in her new novel, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” is an inspirational tale of courage, love, and losses for three unforgettable women.
Cleeton selects her main characters deftly: The real-life Cuban revolutionary Evangelina Cisneros is the book's title character, joined by two fictional women, Grace Harrington, a newspaper reporter inspired by Nelly Bly, and Marina, the wife of a farmer's son ostracized by her wealthy family.
Harrington arrives in New York City in 1896, determined to follow in the footsteps of Nelly Bly by becoming a respected female reporter at one of the city's major newspapers. This ambition puts her in the middle of the circulation wars between William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York World). The term "yellow journalism" — describing sensationalized and sometimes false coverage — was invented to describe Hearst and Pulitzer, but they also encouraged some solid news reporting. That's what Grace strives to accomplish, too. And while her lofty goals get complicated, Grace does eventually end up at Hearst's Journal.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Cuban Evangelina Cisneros, who had joined her exiled rebel father in the Isle of Pines, is attacked by a Spanish colonel. But she ends up being arrested herself and sent to Havana's horrific jail for women, Casa de Recogidas. Here, her survival is tenuous, but she is strong-willed and stubbornly refuses to retract her accusation, even if it might mean her release.
And Marina is the daughter of the wealthy Perez family, married to Mateo, a farmer's son. As the conflict with Spain escalates, she is separated from her husband and eventually forced to leave their farm. Transported to Havana with her daughter and mother-in-law, she must fend for herself with little money, poor living conditions, and no way of knowing if her beloved husband is dead or alive.
History is complicated. War, politics, pain and suffering, and imprisonment — the possibility that a publishing tycoon would exploit all these factors to sell papers may seem unfathomable (or too familiar). But Cleeton breaks down the complexities of this era into a cohesive, compelling story that delivers some jaw-dropping historical facts.
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I credit this to how Cleeton weaves together Grace's stark reporter's tale against the backdrop of Gilded Age New York City with Evangelina's transformation from the beautiful girl in the headlines to a woman dedicated to her country's freedom, and Marina's resourcefulness and sacrifices.
When their stories come together — which they do in surprising and memorable ways — Cleeton's design doesn't sacrifice the mystery or the tension. Although history is set, we can't help but hope for a happy ending for our three heroines and for Cuba, and even the newspaper tycoons (to a degree).
The book also includes romance, but I won't give away who meets whom and what may or may not happen between them. But love is a critical theme here, and not only for a husband, child, parent, or possible future mate. In addition to the history, Cleeton's story includes finding love, losing love, and keeping love in your heart despite the uncertainty of the life and death surrounding you. So, perhaps that means “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” is also a story of how to keep despair at bay.
There are heroes, villains, greed, and men and women walking away to danger or away from love in this novel, but history reigns. You will learn about Cuba, Spain, and New York City — and the Spanish American War. But mainly, you will discover that the story of Evangelina Cisneros is much more than a tale of a Cuban revolutionary, crowned a celebrity by the American press.
“The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” is an exciting and inspiring read that shows us how womanhood, courage and revolution are three words that often mean the same thing.
Denny S. Bryce is the author of the historical novel Wild Women and the Blues.
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