A Cafecito Story
Heads up, readers! Summer is gone, fall is still falling, goblins have spooked, the really big bird has been eaten, and then – yes, Black Friday was yesterday, and now the winter solstice looms. It is high time to seriously shop for those holiday books. Quite by accident I came across what I think may be the all-time gift book for all your coffee addicted family and friends.
Shortly before I retired and left Clayton Books, we hosted author Julia Alvarez. Alvarez read from her award-winning young adult novel Return to Sender (reviewed in Bookin’ with Sunny). Although the author was born in New York, her parents returned to the Dominican Republic where she spent her early years before the family headed back to the U.S. In addition to Return to Sender, Alvarez brought along copies of an earlier book, a slim volume titled A Cafecito Story. I was heavily into coffee at the time and packed the book away to be read at my leisure after retirement (five years ago). It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I came across the Cafecito book. After recently reading George Eliot’s wonderful but vast (eight hundred-plus pages!) Middlemarch, Alvarez’s slender volume just about screamed, “Now read me!”
Global warming, world trade: indeed, now is the perfect time to read it. Cafecito is illustrated in woodcuts by famed Dominican Republic artist Belkis Ramirez. The dust jacket is eye-popping. The story is deceptively simple. An American man, raised on a Nebraskan farm, dreams of following in his family’s footsteps, but by the time Joe is ready for college, everything has changed. Small family farms are on their way out and giant agri-biz is moving in. A counselor suggests he teach. “Putting books in his students’ hands was not all that different from sowing seeds in a field. Still, something seemed to be missing from his life.”
Alvarez, with amazing deftness, moves us through Joe’s life as the world around him changes, including a failed marriage and a deep yearning for something more. Sipping his coffee while searching the Web, he sees a travel ad for the Dominican Republic, “the land Columbus loved the best.”
Joe’s destination is a gated beach resort closed off from the natives. By day three, he knows this is a mistake and not the vacation he expected. Outside the resort gates he wanders into a village barra for a small cup of of the local rich coffee, where the owner tells his fortune from coffee grounds left in his cup. The woman sees “mountains” and a new life for him. His vacation then becomes a quest, taking him to the mountains where family coffee bean growers are losing ground to mega farming corporations, much like his own family in Nebraska.
It does not surprise the reader that Joe stays on the mountain, living with a host family who teach him about the ecology and careful steps necessary for successful coffee bean farming. In return, Joe teaches the family and their neighbors how to read and write. Joe is not the only one who learns what it takes to produce superior coffee beans; we learn as well. Before returning to the States he realizes the cost of deforestation and replacement fertilizers will not only diminish the lives of the farmers who have become his friends, but also the quality of his favorite drink.
Back in the states, Joe meets a kindred spirit (romance never hurts a good story) and both return to the mountains of the Dominican Republic where they successfully introduce fair trade farming to their friends. To read more about the author’s connection to coffee beans grown in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and a bit more of the romance, check out Cafe Alta Gracia.
A Cafecito Story is the perfect gift when given along with a pound of the very finest free trade coffee you can find. It is a gift that tastes as good as it reads.
Also available by Alvarez: In the Time of the Butterflies; How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents; Before We Were Free; How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay; Finding Miracles; A Wedding in Haiti; In the Name of Salome; Something to Declare; Yo!; Return to Sender; Once Upon a Quinceanera; Saving the World; The Woman I Kept to Myself; The Secret Footprints; The Other Side; A Gift of Gracias