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Telex from Cubaby Rachel Kushner
Reading Group Guide
Cuba has long fascinated and compelled writers — from Ernest Hemingway and Graham Green to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Russell Banks. Most writers and readers know about the glamorous, renegade, romantic, often corrupt communities of expats and iconic locals in Havana. But there's another piece of the American experience. For half a century, the United States controlled the sugar and nickel operations in Cuba — the country's two main exports — centered in the lavish, expatriate "sister" enclaves of Preston and Nicaro, 600 miles east of Havana, but intimately connected.
The United Fruit Company owned 300,000 acres in northeast Oriente Province, an area long considered the cradle of Cuban revolutions. In the midst of UF Co's vast cane plantation were 100 acres the company did not own. Those 100 acres belonged to Fidel and Raul Castro's father. The sons, who grew up excluded from a privileged American world, started the revolution there. Telex from Cuba is the story of that world, told from the point of view of three narrators: a boy whose father runs United Fruit's sugar operation, a girl whose father runs the nickel operation, and a French agitator who helps train the rebels.
Like every great novel told through the eyes of a child, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Telex from Cuba seduces the reader into the drama of a family encountering unexpected conflict and the story of the gradual awakening of adolescents to issues of class, race, and social injustice. KC Stites and Everly Lederer are extraordinarily compelling narrators, and their parents and their parents' friends are portrayed with a combination of scrutiny and forgiveness that beguiles the reader. The book's multiple perspectives — including that of the more jaded La Mazière — round Telex into not just a coming-of-age tale but a story of political change. The revolution does come. The families are evacuated. The company town is expropriated. And it is all told in a novel that will put Rachel Kushner on the map of contemporary American literature.
Group Discussion Questions:
1. KC Stites tells his story as an adult. Why do you think Rachel Kushner chose to write his story in first person (as opposed to the others told in third person) based on a grown man's memories? How might the story be different if a young KC was telling it?
2. Everly notes that "If her parents ever did get rich, their old selves would hate their new selves" (p. 42). Discuss the importance of social class in 1950s Cuba, both amongst the expatriates (the Stites, Lederers, Allains, etc.), their servants (Annie, Willy, etc.), and the locals, such as Mr. Gonzalez. Are there rigid laws, or can people maneuver between classes? Why are issues straightened out native to native (pg. 187)?
3. La Mazière believed Rachel K "gauzed her person in persona, but sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in an elaborate tangle" (pg. 55). Discuss the significance of identity in Telex from Cuba. Who is not what they seem? The Lederer daughters have a doll, Scribbles, whose face they can erase and then re-draw. Are other people capable of reinventing themselves?
4. Why do these families move to Cuba? Do they arrive seeking to escape their pasts, hoping for new business opportunities, or looking forward to a new adventure? When they leave, have they accomplished their goals? What do they take away?
5. Throughout the novel, many characters note the red haze of nickel oxide that floats from the company's mines and covers the whole area. What, if anything, does this red dust symbolize?
6. "A human trapped inside a monkey trapped inside a cage. But when she tried to put him down, he screeched like a vicious animal" (pg. 97). What role do animals play in this novel? Consider the shark Del insists on killing, Mrs. LaDue's caged monkey Poncho, and the pig Mr. Stites beats to death to teach KC a lesson.
7. In this novel, what is the significance of one's nationality? Rachel K claims to be French, people believe La Mazière is German, Mr. Carrington is actually Cuban, and Deke Havelin renounces his American citizenship to become Cuban. Is a person's nationality a matter of choice, where they're born, the family they're born into, or how they appear to others?
8. What drives La Mazière? Why is he in Cuba, and why does a Frenchman join an army of Cuban rebels? Does he have true political motivations, or is he simply an instigator? And will he always yearn for a "luminous bubble, for an impossible time of privilege and turmoil" (pg. 200)?
9. Do you believe the story Rachel K tells La Mazière about her past, or does she merely like to play games? Does she have true feelings for him? What is the significance of her painted on fishnets?
10. When Mr. Carrington returns home from being kidnapped, his wife never sees him on the lawn because the indoor lights are on: "she'd have to put herself in darkness in order to see" (pg. 253). When thinking about Rachel K preferring to sleep without blankets so she can freeze and then make herself warm, La Mazière ponders what the director said about Woodsie, that she "gives radiant joy, but then she takes it away" (pg. 229). What do these observations imply about the women? Can you think of other examples of dichotomy?
11. Why does KC give Everly the Pullman car's door handle? What does it represent to each of them? Does KC truly have feelings for her, or does he want to please his mother?
12. KC thinks Everly has a funny look, but "maybe everyone has that look, but they know to cover it" (pg. 267). Which characters are best at wearing masks?
13. As they're being evacuated, Everly looks over the island from the boat and realizes "It's so niceÉwithout us" (pg. 277). How did the families of the United Fruit Company impact Cuba, for both the good and bad? Will anyone be sad to see them leave?
14. In the closing words of Telex from Cuba, KC states "You don't call the dead. The dead call you" (pg. 317). What does he mean by this? Who is calling KC and the other families who once lived in Cuba?
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