Una Rosa Blanca
By Amy Ephron
Morrow. 259 pp. $23
"White Rose" reads as if its author, the ever charming and always adventurous Amy Ephron, had written it under the influence of an oddly potent euphoric. The time is 1897; the place, Cuba, where a beautiful, pure-hearted girl, Evangelina Cisneros, is a political prisoner in Havana, more specifically in a scruffy but picturesque jail called Casa de Recojidas (the Prison for Abandoned Women). Evangelina's revolutionary father is in a mysterious location still to be announced; her fiance is at large, fighting for Cuba Libre.
Spain still rules Cuba, and the island swarms with both the Spanish army and the Guardia Civil. Characters drift through sinister, exotic Havana, advising each other to "trust no one," and they're right, too; no one is to be trusted. Into this hotbed of spies, vying factions and potential revolution comes the journalist Charles Duval, who's actually Karl Decker, who works for a Hearst newspaper in New York. He's come to do a series of interviews for the Journal, and God knows why the Cuban prison officials allow him to interview Evangelina, but they do.
Day after day, the beautiful girl and the intrepid journalist (who's actually a spy, a private spy working directly for William Randolph Hearst, who wants to influence U.S. policy) sit across from each other in the fetid prison courtyard, whispering secret messages, passing notes back and forth right under the noses of the prison guards (who must be the most obtuse prison guards in the Western Hemisphere), while she says things like: "Brave men do not attack girls who do not carry swords" and "But, we are a curious, independent people, not so easy to annex," and he says, "Do you know if the guard has children?" And "Continue, please, with your story," and "No, feign you have a headache."
It's Karl Decker's plan to spring Evangelina from the Prison for Abandoned Women, even though it's "impenetrable"--we're told at least five times that it's "impenetrable." Decker hatches an elaborate plan that involves Evangelina hanging a diamond-studded crucifix in her prison window so that the moonlight can catch the glitter of the diamonds as a signal that the jailbreak can go forward. This plan is suggested on Page 100: "It's inset with diamonds, which should catch the moonlight. If we do not see it hanging there, we will leave." But 13 pages later, Decker's jailbreak sidekicks fret because "clouds were starting to break and they would not have the benefit of a moonless night." Also, the number of soldiers asleep in the adjacent arsenal has changed from 462 to 300, but it doesn't matter. Decker penetrates the impenetrable jail, springs Evangelina and manages to smuggle them both aboard a boat bound for New York City, where she will henceforward be known as "The Flower of Cuba." Naturally, by now, they're madly in love--and Karl's a married man.
These events are based on reality. The author acknowledges basing her story on the accounts of the real Karl Decker and Evangelina Cisneros; indeed, "in some instances, the author has chosen to use Ms. Cisneros' own words." But not always. Most often she chooses to use her own words, and they tweak the text considerably. Evangelina is referred to as "high profile"; the Spanish soldiers are called "yahoos"; fellow passengers on the boat put together a "care package" for Evangelina, though the phrase wouldn't come into use for another 45 or 50 years; Mrs. Decker mentions that she's "quite conflicted"; the air in the Cuban countryside is described as "saccharine," which is cutting it close since that noun had only been around for two years; and, of course, Evangelina feels "empowered." The author makes up for these startling anachronisms by using "do not" instead of "don't" to lend a Latin dignity to her dialogue, and by using "quite" quite a lot, as in: "I can quite do that myself," and "the girl quite knew how to capitalize on her own innocence."
Was there a mild form of locoweed involved here? How else to account for "as she approached, the old collie began to bark. He took Evangelina's hand," or "she would ride in the carriage with her chin up, her head slightly down, as if she were proud of the struggle of her country." (I tried to keep my chin up and my head down for a while last night until I got a stiff neck.)
The thing is: It doesn't matter. This is about riding horses along the beach and escaping from the impenetrable jail and sailing the Atlantic with spray in your face and walking around saying "Trust no one" to anyone who will listen. I read "an uncorrected version" of "White Rose," and I hope her editor has gotten around to putting question marks at the end of the 15 questions that don't have them, and at least taking out the commas that come between subject and verb.
I think the lesson for this ebullient if slightly distracted author is: Trust no one! Because, honey, you should have quite done some of this work yourself.
Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.
Upcoming in Book World
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
THE REAL AMERICAN DREAM: A Meditation on Hope, by Andrew Delbanco, and BUILDING A BRIDGE TO THE 19TH CENTURY: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, by Neil Postman. Reviewed by Joshua Shenk.
THE TERRIBLE HOURS: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History, by Peter Maas. True-life story of the race to save the trapped crew of a sunken submarine. Reviewed by Bill Gifford.
THE WAY WE LIVED THEN: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper, by Dominick Dunne. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
HEAVEN'S DOOR: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, by George J. Borjas. Reviewed by Peter Skerry.
EVE: A Biography, by Pamela Norris. A feminist scholar examines why somebody had to take the Fall. Reviewed by Carolyn See.