Foreword Reviews

Pedro Pan

One Boy's Journey to America

Clarion Rating: 3 out of 5

Pedro Pan is an insightful historical novel about a boy’s move to America during a critical period.

In Michelle McNiff’s bright historical novel Pedro Pan, a Cuban boy in exile comes to live on an Iowa farm.

Pedro is the son of a Havana doctor in the 1950s. He lives with his parents and grandmother near the sea. He goes to school, chases after lizards, and enjoys meals crowned with custard.

This warm upbringing is the novel’s focus before its introduction of more ominous notes. Historical events are hinted at; Castro is “one man” with a “devious plan.” He finally rises to power in 1959. Pedro’s ordinary life is interrupted by the revolution, which is covered via radio broadcasts. When Pedro’s parents, who hope to keep him safe, announce that they’ve secured him a scholarship to study English in the US, Pedro is unsure. Nonetheless, with a gold pocket watch, a medallion charm, and a pet lizard in a jar, Pedro flies to Miami alongside other escaping children.

There’s intrigue in the book’s shifting tones. It moves between hard realities and Pedro’s youthful perspective. Pedro is unaware of the full political context surrounding his island, yet is astute enough to sense danger through what he hears, the absence of his usual holiday rituals, his mother’s worries, and his school’s closure. Still, Pedro leaves for the US with hopes of returning home someday. And once he’s in Des Moines with his Catholic sponsors, Pedro adapts to a rural life that’s punctuated by chores.

The book draws an interesting link between Pedro’s flight and Peter Pan’s adventure that extends throughout its work: Pedro is apprehensive but excited, and also deals with the poignant realities of loss. At times, the book’s encouraging sentiments are too overt. Pedro is bolstered by strangers’ comments, as when a pilot describes America as a “land of opportunity.” He also talks himself into better frames of mind. The book’s emphasis on optimism, though, leads to it glossing over the practical difficulties of Pedro’s journey. It also idealizes the US over Pedro’s own complicated but still beloved home. By coloring Pedro’s tough separation from his family with calm resolve, lessons about the necessity of accepting one’s unexpected circumstances are pronounced.

The farm’s snowy grounds and corn-laced diet are covered in stark contrast to Cuba’s subtropical colors and flavors. But while Pedro falls into the farm’s rhythms in a matter-of-fact manner, there’s a sudden introduction of animals who can talk into his tale. He has conversations with them, and dances with them; these forays stray from the story’s realism and age group. The picture book sizing and format, too, are at odds with the book’s interior, which is laid out in unillustrated, unbroken pages of plain text. Still, the beautiful cover painting by Kurt Huggins captures both Cuba and Iowa, centering Pedro in his 1950s style. With an upturned gaze that evokes optimism, it’s a fitting image for the book’s joyful conclusion.

Pedro Pan is an insightful historical novel about a boy’s move to America during a critical period.

Reviewed by Karen Rigby

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the publisher will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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