Young Castro by Jonathan M. Hansen is an intimate, revisionist portrait of the early years of Fidel Castro, showing how an unlikely young Cuban led his country in revolution and transfixed the world.
Until now, biographers have treated Castro’s life like prosecutors, scouring his past for evidence to convict a person they don’t like or don’t understand. This can make for bad history and unsatisfying biography.
Young Castro challenges readers to put aside the caricature of a bearded, cigar-munching, anti-American hothead to discover how Castro became the thorn in the side of U.S. presidents for nearly a half century.
These pages show Fidel Castro getting his toughness from a father who survived Spain’s nasty class system and colonial wars to become one of the most successful independent plantation owners in Cuba. They show a boy running around that plantation more comfortable playing with the children of his father’s laborers than his tony classmates at elite boarding schools in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
They show a young man who writes flowery love letters from prison and contemplates the meaning of life, a gregarious soul attentive to the needs of strangers but often indifferent to the needs of his own family.
These pages show a liberal democrat who admires FDR’s New Deal policies and is skeptical of communism, but also is hostile to American imperialism. They show an audacious militant who stages a reckless attack on a military barracks but is canny about building an army of resisters. In short, Young Castro reveals a complex man.
The first American historian in a generation to gain access to the Castro archives in Havana, Hansen was able to secure cooperation from Castro’s family and closest confidants, gaining access to hundreds of never-before-seen letters and to first-ever interviews. The result is a nuanced and penetrating portrait of a figure who was determined to be a leader — at once brilliant, arrogant, bold, vulnerable and all too human. A man who, having grown up on an island that felt like a colonial cage, was compelled to lead his country to independence.
Hansen is a senior lecturer at Harvard University and the author of Guantánamo: An American History and The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920. His writing has been published in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian. He lives in Boston.
Jonathan Hansen will participate in a conversation moderated by Mimi Whitefield on June 27, 8 p.m., at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.