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El Lector    by William Durbin order for
El Lector
by William Durbin
Order:  USA  Can
Wendy Lamb Books, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Yrbor City, Florida is home to thirteen-year old Bella Lorente, her mother and four siblings. Their father was murdered two years ago, but they are thankful for Grandfather Garcia who lives nearby. The immigrant community is supported by the El Paraiso cigar factory where workers hand-roll cigars. It is 1931, the Depression dampens spirits, while workers attempt to unionize with the Tobacco Workers International Union, an action vehemently fought by Anglo-business owners. The workers clash, arrests are made, jobs are lost, the Ku Klux Klan is active, and it is difficult to trust the mayor and police officers. Added concerns are the invention of the radio, and cigar-rolling machines, which threaten the livelihood of Yrbor City's citizens.

During factory time (long in hours and days of the week), Grandfather Garcia is a famed El Lector (the reader) who sits on a special platform and, in a resonant voice, translates stories from newspapers, and books, bringing current events to the employees. (Lectors have always been highly respected members of their Cuban American community.) It is a talent which Bella hopes to achieve one day, and she has high hopes to attend high school. Bella is talented in story-telling, and helps care for her siblings, while her mother takes in laundry to do by hand, the source of income to put food on the table.

Aunt Lola, a strong, active force in the union, is arrested and jailed with others after a union demonstration held at the Labor Temple. She teaches her niece to stand tall and proud - even when Bella is faced with the decision to take a job in the cigar factory - and to stand up for human rights. Her voice shines in a speech given at a union meeting, in defense of the arrested parties, and the future of lectores. 'Not only do our friends remain in jail, but last night those in power took it upon themselves to tear the lecterns out of our factories ... No matter how many platforms they rip down, the lectores cannot be silenced without our permission. We must fight for the right of everyone to speak freely.'

William Durbin's book captivates readers with an episode from American history - a time when ice blocks were delivered to homes that could not afford electricity, with the sound of 'the clop of horses' hooves and the tinkling of glass as the milkman carried the bottles up the walk and left them on the front porch'. I found interesting the little-publicized fact that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a seventeen-year old woman named Jackie Mitchell (making her debut in professional baseball), struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

El Lector is a tender story of survival and struggles for a better life, in a community which stands up for its rights no matter the circumstances, in an era fraught with difficulties. The central character, Bella, is portrayed as a strong, young woman who comes of age with maturity, stamina, and fortitude. However, the story ends without answers to questions such as the murder of Bella's father, and very little is told about the revolution in Spain (an effort supported by contributions from the Florida community). As well as books for young readers, Durbin, a former high school and community college teacher of English, has written biographies of Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.

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