Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Family Sentence

Jeanine Cornillot's memoir recalls growing up with a father in prison. Hector Cornillot spent decades in Florida prisons, sentenced for participation in an anti-Castro bombing in Miami. For his children, Cornillot became an enigma. Jeanine spent her childhood imagining her father fulfilling his parental duties to the best of his ability, within the confines of prison. Her imagination ranged from faith that he thought about his children regularly, to dreaming that he escaped from prison to return to his family. This tendency is exacerbated by Jeanine's mother's edict that that family remain silent on Hector's whereabouts. Jeanine upholds that code of silence, resulting in an even richer imaginative life. Her suppositions are based on a few, sparse visits to her incarcerated father, always undertaken when she visits her Cuban-Floridian grandparents. These do little to quell Jeanine's desire for information about her father; they seem to be cut scenes in the regular progression of her life. Ultimately we see that despite his physical absence, Hector Cornillot shapes his children's lives in many ways. Ultimately what I found most interesting about this book was Jeanine's discussion of struggling with her Cuban identity. She doesn't speak Spanish, when in Miami with her grandparents Jeanine relies on a cousin to translate. Her quotidian life in Philadelphia has little contact with Cuban culture, something that is certainly reinforced by the familial code of silence concerning Hector Cornillot. Many aspects of Jeanine's story duplicate those of thousands of other children with incarcerated parents- on that note I didn't necessarily feel like I was reading what I haven't heard before.

Jeanine Cornillot, Family Sentence: The Search for My Cuban-Revolutionary, Prison-Yard, Mythic-Hero, Deadbeat Dad (Beacon, 2009) ISBN: 0807000388

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