A Canadian mother, in a frantic attempt to find a better life, leaves her husband behind, takes their small child and hitchhikes her way across the border to the United States and hope.

But she doesn't make it. The trucker who gave the tattered pair a ride misses a turn and goes careening down a steep hillside. Only the child survives. Canadian and U.S. authorities are locked in a dispute over whether the child should be given over to the care of relatives in Pennsylvania or returned to his heartbroken father in Canada.

Why haven't you read that story? Well, there's the niggling little fact that it isn't true. But the point is, it's almost inconceivable that it could be true--and not just because Canada's is a vigorous economy with a sturdier social safety net than our own. You simply cannot imagine that (absent strong evidence that the father was a child abuser, criminal fugitive or certified lunatic) there would be any question of custody. Of course the child would go to his father--or, more likely, the father would be offered the best job of his life, given a place to live and invited to become a U.S. citizen.

So why is there such an international fuss about 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez? The most obvious answer I can think of is: The case involves Cuba. That one fact seems enough to cloud our judgment.

Elian, as the world now knows, was rescued after a boat loaded with Cubans trying to reach America capsized at sea. The boy's mother was among the 11 passengers who died.

His father and grandparents in Cuba naturally want the youngster back home with them. So what's the problem? You ought to listen to the reasons we can dream up for keeping Elian here:

You mustn't think in terms of the father's "rights." Elian is not a piece of property. Anyway, he has relatives in the States.

You have to think of the best interest of the child. Any fool can see that Elian is better off here than he would be in Cuba; the very fact that his mother undertook such horrendous risks to flee the island testifies to that. Here, he'll have better food and health care, better schooling, warmer clothes--along with the blessings of liberty.

We shouldn't allow ourselves to be pushed around by Fidel Castro. Keeping the boy here, free from that dictator's clutches, and watching him grow up strong and free will be just the rebuke Castro deserves.

If we let the boy go back to Cuba now, then his poor mother--and all the others who died in their valiant attempt to escape tyranny--will have died for nothing.

It all strikes me as even more absurd than the squabble we had--can it be nearly 20 years ago?--over Walter Polovchak, the 12-year-old who announced that he wanted to stay in Chicago rather than accompany his parents when they decided to return to their native Ukraine.

Walter got himself a lawyer and fought to remain here, saying, among other things, how much he liked his new friends, his school, the abundance of food at his disposal and his new bicycle. Also, he didn't particularly like his father.

The court ruled in the boy's favor, and he remained under Illinois state supervision until he turned 19. All, of course, in the best interest of the child. Maybe it's not just Castro but communism that makes us crazy.

I find it difficult to imagine that any 6-year-old, particularly one traumatized by the tragic death of his mother, wouldn't prefer the comfort, the excitement and the things of America to crushing poverty in an unappealing dictatorship. I mean, bicycles, MTV, cartoons, computers, snazzy clothes--these things have sometimes tempted children to prefer living with other relatives over their own parents.

Nor can I argue that it wouldn't be in Elian's "best interest" to remain in America. It is quite conceivable that it would be in the best interest of virtually every child in Cuba--and in a few dozen other poverty-stricken lands--to have a shot at the American life.

But I don't think for a second that such a consideration of "best interest" gives us any right to refuse to allow a father to have his son back. Nor do I think we'd even be having this discussion were it not for the fact that no U.S. politician with ambitions for national office wants to risk the wrath of the Cuban exile community here. That, really, is what clouds our thinking.

Elian would almost certainly be worse off in some important ways for being sent back to Cuba, but it still seems to me that, under the circumstances, it's the right thing to do.

Either that, or invite the boy's father to join him here.