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America's Unknown Cuban Hero

Plus, Burke in post-Katrina New Orleans


It may surprise readers of this fascinating book that, in the late 1950s, a lot of Americans were rooting for Fidel Castro to overthrow Cuba's ruler, General Fulgencio Batista. The country's dictator was widely seen as a cruel tyrant who kept his people poor and ignorant while enjoying a rum-drunk, decadent lifestyle, courtesy of wealthy American mafia friends who ran the island's gambling, drugs and prostitution. It was only later, after Castro denounced U.S. attempts to get rid of him and he began taking Soviet money, that mainstream America turned against the newly christened Evil Bearded Commie.

Of all American Castro supporters, none was more dedicated than William Morgan, a former high school janitor from Toledo, Ohio, who became a chief commandante in Castro's army (one of only two foreigners to reach that rank, along with the Argentinean Che Guevara).

In 1958, Morgan left his janitorial days behind him and, at the age of 29, the blond, blue-eyed American made his way to Cuba and joined Castro's rebel army. Author Aran Shetterly's descriptions of the rebel camps and the ensuing battles are vivid and bring the country and the era to life. At first, Castro & Co. were suspicious of Morgan's motives, but his energetic commitment and military skills led them to hand him more responsibilities. Soon, Morgan was leading groups into battle in the hills and jungles, befuddling (and killing) Batista's troops.

After the revolution's victory, Morgan married a Cuban woman, almost single-handedly stopped an attempt to overthrow Castro by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo and became a Cuban hero. Nonetheless, some of Castro's deputies still harbored doubts about Morgan's loyalty and tried to keep him on a short leash. What followed is still mired in uncertainty.

Morgan may have simply let it be known that he was fed up with being closely watched. Or he may have turned against the Castro regime after seeing renege on its pledges of freedom and democracy. Or he may have been an American double agent all along. In any case, Morgan was arrested and executed on Castro's orders in 1961.

Morgan was a fascinating, complex and passionate man whose story practically begs to be made into a film. Shetterly sets the historical stage expertly while making Morgan's story read like a fast-paced political thriller, or a mythic hero's journey. Or a less conflicted version of Hemingway. Or, who knows, like an agent who fell in love with a cause he was only supposed to be pretending to support.


James Lee Burke fans who've been waiting for the author's first post-Katrina Dave Robicheaux novel can rejoice. Burke harnessed his deep, lyrical talent to his anger and sorrow over the profound tragedies -- human, social, ecological, economic and national -- of New Orleans' devastation. In the process, he's created what is arguably the finest volume yet in an already stellar series.

Robicheaux, a New Iberia, La., detective, as well as Burke's alter ego, is as hard-boiled, bruised and compassionate as ever, but now has to face the destruction of a city that, more than anything, has been his anchor.

In the book's first chapter, Robicheaux awakes from a nightmare about his days in Vietnam.

When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most. But that was before ... a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana.

Robicheaux's department is mobilized to patrol New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath. He and longtime "unofficial" partner Clete Purcel wind up investigating the shooting of two looters who had unknowingly pillaged the house of one of the city's most powerful gangsters. Meanwhile, Robicheaux also probes the disappearance of a priest who was last seen trying to rescue trapped parishioners in the desolate Ninth Ward. Burke makes it clear that New Orleans' degeneration didn't begin with a hurricane, but had started long before when corrupt politicians allowed a callous federal government to cut funds in the 1980s, and then stood by as the levees weakened, marshes were filled in by developers, and crack cocaine was introduced to the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Burke ties up the plot's loose ends as skillfully as ever, but what remains in this reader's memory is the author's elegiac tone, his gorgeous descriptions of natural beauty and neighborhoods now lost, and the way his detective must force himself to face up to the scope of New Orleans' tragedy.

I wanted to wake to the great, gold-green, sun-spangled promise of the South Louisiana in which I had grown up. I didn't want to be part of the history taking place in our state.

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