One of our recommended books is Hotel Cuba by Aaron Hamburger


From the award-winning author of The View from Stalin’s Head, a stunning novel about two sheltered Russian Jewish sisters, desperate to get to America to make a new life, who find themselves trapped in the sultry, hedonistic world of 1920s Havana.

Fleeing the chaos of World War I and the terror of the Soviet Revolution, practical, sensible Pearl Kahn and her lovestruck, impulsive younger sibling Frieda sail for America to join their sister in New York. But discriminatory new immigration laws bar their entry, and the young women are turned back at Ellis Island. With few options,

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From the award-winning author of The View from Stalin’s Head, a stunning novel about two sheltered Russian Jewish sisters, desperate to get to America to make a new life, who find themselves trapped in the sultry, hedonistic world of 1920s Havana.

Fleeing the chaos of World War I and the terror of the Soviet Revolution, practical, sensible Pearl Kahn and her lovestruck, impulsive younger sibling Frieda sail for America to join their sister in New York. But discriminatory new immigration laws bar their entry, and the young women are turned back at Ellis Island. With few options, Pearl and Frieda head for Havana, Cuba, convinced they will find a way to overcome this setback.

At first, life in big-city Prohibition-era Havana is overwhelming, like nothing Pearl and Frieda have ever experienced—or could have ever imagined in the rural shtetl where they grew up. As the sisters begin to adjust, their plans for going to America together become complicated. Frieda falls for the not-so-dreamy man of her dreams while Pearl’s life opens up unexpectedly, offering her a taste of freedom and heady romance, and an opportunity to build a future on her own terms. Though to do so, she must confront her past and the shame she has long carried.

A heartbreaking, epic family story, Hotel Cuba explores the profound courage of two women displaced from their home who strive to create a new future in an enticing and dangerous world far different from anything they have ever known.

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  • Harper Perennial
  • Paperback
  • May 2023
  • 400 Pages
  • 9780063221444

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About Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger is the author of Hotel Cuba

AARON HAMBURGER is the author of a story collection titled The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and nominee for a Violet Quill Award. He is also the author of two novels: Faith for Beginners, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, and Nirvana Is Here, winner of a Bronze Medal from the 2019 Foreword Reviews INDIES Book of the Year Awards. His writing has appeared in the New York Times; Washington Post; Chicago Tribune; O, the Oprah Magazine; Details; Village Voice; Poets & Writers; Tin House; Out; Michigan Quarterly Review; The Forward; and numerous other publications. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University, George Washington University, New York University, Brooklyn College, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.



“Deeply moving, compulsively readable, Hotel Cuba chronicles the early twentieth century immigrant experience with a profound understanding and crackling urgency I’ve not previously encountered. I could not put it down and I could not stop thinking about it long after I’d reached its stunning conclusion. In short: You need to read this book. Right now.” —Joanna Rakoff, bestselling author of My Salinger Year

“Thick with the humid air of a Havana summer night, rich with mesmerizing detail, Hotel Cuba will grab you and not let you go.” —Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Take My HandBalm and Wench

Hotel Cuba is a stunning and captivating read. It can be easy to show a cast of characters crossing such great distances, can be easy to show an immigrant’s story, but it is another thing entirely to make a reader feel that distance and the love, sadness, forgiveness, and triumphs these people experience. There is so much love and compassion in this neatly detailed and moving novel. Hotel Cuba joins the ranks of some of my favorites, like Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.”Morgan Talty, author of Night of the Living Rez

“In Hotel Cuba, Aaron Hamburger brings a humane intelligence to the story of two sisters searching for home following the devastations of the First World War. Every finely observed detail resonates with hope and loss.” — Rebecca Donner, New York Times bestselling author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days

“With Hotel Cuba, Aaron Hamburger sees the poignant gravity behind the ongoing search for home and the battle that can ensue between family obligations and the weight of history. With great empathy, this rich, engrossing novel lets us see that no place is ever transitory and that even the briefest of stays forever affects us, no matter our last horizon.”  — Manuel Muñoz, author of The Consequences 

Discussion Questions

1. Consider the title Hotel Cuba. What does it mean to you? To what extent is Pearl’s stay in Cuba a temporary stop in her life’s journey and to what extent has it left its mark on her character and the direction of her life?

2. Think about the sacrifices Pearl and her sister, Frieda, must make in leaving their home and adapting to a new way of life. Would you be able to make similar sacrifices in your own life? What are the costs of those sacrifices for the two sisters?

3. Pearl is an artist with needle and thread. How do the clothes that she works on, and wears, relate to what is happening in her life and her mind throughout the novel? What do you think will happen to her career at the end of the book?

4. Compare Pearl’s various attractions and love interests in the novel. Do you think she ultimately made the right choice in terms of romance?

5. Frieda makes several key life choices in the novel. Pearl has strong opinions about her sister and the direction of her life. Do you think Frieda has made the right choices for herself in the end? How do you think her marriage will turn out?

6. How has Pearl’s time in Key West affected her? What does she take away from the Singer family? And what did you make of the mysterious Rabbi Singer?

7. What do you know about the history of the Jewish community of Cuba? Do a quick search online to find out more. What do you imagine might have happened to Pearl if she’d decided to stay in Havana rather than emigrate to the United States?

8. Compare Pearl’s story to other immigrant stories you’ve read, as well as contemporary debates about immigration. How do we balance competing concerns regarding immigration in a fair and just way?

9. This book was inspired by the true story of Aaron Hamburger’s grandmother. In writing it, the author consulted recorded interviews with his grandparents and did extensive research to fill in missing details he was wondering about. He also says that he wanted to uncover more than just biographical facts. “I wanted to breathe life into my grandmother’s experience, to find out what she ate, how she felt, what her impressions were of life in such a unique place.” What stories do you know about your own family history? Has it been preserved in any way? What do you imagine might have gotten lost in those stories that could be brought back to life through research or imagination?




FISH AND ORANGES. A SALTY SEA OF SOUP DOTTED WITH ISLANDS of potato chunks that Pearl can mash flat with the back of a spoon. Bread so dry, when she dunks it into her lukewarm soup, the stubborn roll remains firm. But Pearl can be stubborn too. She continues dunking the roll until it softens and melts into a paste.

It’s depressing, the food on this boat they call SS Hudson. Heavy on salt and light on pepper, parsley, or any herb to give it character, like the shaggy dill in her yard back in Russia—or what used to be Russia, because this year, 1922, their town belongs to Poland. After a good rain, those dill stalks grow so high they collapse under their own weight. Starving blue-eyed soldiers from the tsar’s army used to pull them out by the roots, mistaking them for carrots, then fling them to the ground.

“Eat,” says Pearl, offering an orange to her younger sister, Frieda, sitting with her eyes closed and squeezing her temples. “Or save it for later.”

“Don’t bother,” says Frieda. “I won’t eat it then either.”

“You can’t starve all the way to Cuba.” Maybe Pearl sounds more like a nagging mother than a sister, but she quit worrying about her own vanity years ago when Mama died, after giving birth to Frieda. Though Pearl was only nine then, people already called her Old Lady, Housewife, Empress of the Kitchen, Madame Singer Sewing Machine.

What will they call her in Havana, where no one knows her and she has no history? She might be anything. It’s a thrilling, terrifying thought.

Before the war, a girl from Turya who’d immigrated to America returned to visit—as a rich lady. Some women laughed behind her back, mimicked her proud walk, lifted their hair to imitate her short haircut, and called her New Woman, as an insult. But Pearl didn’t laugh. Maybe someday she too would become a kind of New Woman, like this shtetl girl who’d transformed into a prosperous American lady who could afford to coolly ignore the others’ jokes, as if she didn’t hear. Now there was freedom.

Frieda, who’s in one of her states, won’t eat, no matter what Pearl says. Arguing with her is like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, so Pearl returns to her own soup. Tomorrow she’ll eat the next soup, and then the one after that, and the one after that. In this way, always looking forward, never back, she and this creaking boat will slowly cross the Atlantic, leaving Europe behind.

When Pearl finishes her bowl, she’s still hungry. She has long been cursed with a healthy appetite. Her solid, sturdy figure bulges in the wrong places for a woman who loves dainty clothes, loves looking at them and making them. Before the Great War, when people cared what they looked like, Jews and Gentiles alike paid her to make dresses sewn with fine stitches you’d need a magnifying glass to see. For each dress she made, Pearl imagined a story, the potential to put on a new outfit and become a new person. But sadly, clothes never fit her as beautifully as they do slender Frieda, who even before the boat often forgot to eat.

Pearl has never forgotten to eat in her life. During the worst of the Great War and then the Revolution and war with Poland after, her hunger was so raw it addled her thoughts, gnawed at her stomach lining.

On the SS Hudson, many passengers are seasick, like Frieda. Pearl squeezes sideways between tables, casually skims stray peas and carrot knobs from abandoned bowls of soup, scrounges a section of orange, a scrap of pinkish-brown herring.

A willowy lady wearing a dusty-pink hat watches her at work—out of pity or disgust? She’s a sophisticated city type. Jews are so desperate to leave Europe these days, they’d cross the ocean in a bathtub, so Pearl sees many grand people like her mixed with country folk in steerage. This lady has a long, lovely face, pale with a pointed chin, and shrewd gray-green eyes like a cat. Pearl noticed her when she came into the dining room on the arm of a young man who pulled out a chair for her. She stepped forward and sat, didn’t even look behind her, confident the chair would be pushed in again, and it was.

Pearl imagines what it would be like to have that kind of confidence, to sit into air and know that a seat would appear below you. And that hat—it fires up her imagination. If Pearl could afford to wear a fancy pink hat like that, she could walk down the street with such a cold, blank stare that no one would dare bother her. She’s known plenty of women who aren’t strictly beautiful, but in the right hat or dress, they’re magnificent. Their clothes teach the world to treat them with dignity.

The pink lady notices Pearl staring, gives her an inquisitive look, and Pearl, who feels a puzzling itch to capture this exquisite woman’s attention, surprises herself by nervously extending a roll and asking, “Maybe you want half?”

In response, she averts her eyes.

“It’s all right,” says Pearl, fearing she’s committed a blunder but unable to stop herself. “You can have the whole thing if you want.”

“I’m afraid I’m not very hungry.” Looking as if she’s smelled something rotten, the woman rises and leaves the table, followed by her male companion.

Pearl returns meekly to her seat. What was she thinking, speaking out that way? “This food’s awful,” she tells her sister. “If they let me in the kitchen, I could do better.”

“I heard you,” says Frieda. “The way you talk, it’s embarrassing.”

“What did you hear?” Pearl suspects her sister’s right but doesn’t like to admit it. She lacks her sister’s talent—if you can call it that—for small talk.

Frieda grabs a roll and shoves it rudely at Pearl’s chest. “‘Go on, have it.’ That’s not how someone with manners speaks. Didn’t you see that expensive dress she had on? Didn’t you hear her pretty accent? Imagine what she thinks of us.”

The back of Pearl’s neck prickles with shame. I’ve gotten it wrong again, she thinks. But what if the pink lady wasn’t offended, just jealous? Because Pearl was brazen enough to do whatever she felt like. If that lady wasn’t so polite, she’d pick up scraps too. Polite people don’t survive in this world.

“We’re from plenty good stock,” says Pearl. “Father’s from Lithuania.”

“Where we’re going, they’ve probably never heard of Lithuania,” says Frieda, pushing back her chair. “I can’t sit here anymore. My stomach’s not at all well.”

“I’d better come with you,” says Pearl.

Clinging to the shaky, narrow railings, the two sisters descend three flights of metal stairs into the ship’s belly. Day or night makes no difference in the enormous room where they sleep, three times the size of a synagogue, crammed with endless rows of iron berths stacked with lean mattresses. Kerosene lamps put up a feeble fight against the darkness. Pearl and Frieda have claimed two narrow beds by the wall. They take turns holding up a blanket while changing their clothes. Not everyone is so delicate, and Pearl’s eye occasionally catches the white curve of a stranger’s breast or rump. Once, Frieda wasn’t paying attention to the blanket and exposed Pearl’s body. “Raise it higher! Higher!” Pearl hissed, imagining everyone staring at her fleshy, hairy arms, her dark-toned skin, the color of rye bread. But she wouldn’t allow herself to cry, not for all to see.

“Was it really so terrible how I spoke to that lady?” Pearl asks.

“Leave it be,” says Frieda. She climbs into her bed, pulls her knees to her chin, and faces the wall to retreat into her sullen self, silent as a widow.

It’s wearying, the engine’s eternal clanking, strangers’ anxious chatter, and days of seeing only sea and sky around their ship. Pearl’s ears ache, filled with the constant roar of ocean. Focus on other things, she thinks. A warm, freshly laid egg, or yes, a dusty-pink hat. But then the ship hits a rolling wave, someone screams or tumbles to the floor, and she’s back in the present, lost on an ocean.

Like Pearl and Frieda, many passengers are Jews fleeing the cluster of shtetls on the Polish-Russian border, which shifts east or west year to year, war to war, and sometimes disappears. The passengers from cities like Minsk or Warsaw stand out to Pearl because of their store-bought leather shoes or their gloriously impractical ladies’ hats, tight as bathing caps. She’s seen such hats in a fashion magazine she found during the short time she worked as a hotel chambermaid in Warsaw. Every day she smooths the pages, presses out the wrinkles. In America, she hopes to make dresses good enough for a magazine.

The washrooms are right outside where they sleep, easy to find: just follow the stench to its source, where five faucets dispense cold salt water into metal basins. Some of their fellow passengers can’t quite make it to the washroom to relieve themselves or vomit, so to ward off the smell, people tie dried herbs or chains of garlic to the iron berths.

When they first left Danzig, Pearl tried to shield Frieda from the mess, but it’s impossible, as if this journey were purposefully designed to make them feel like animals. Despite the efforts of the crew, who hose down the floors with ammonia every few days, a musky stink has settled in the cavernous space: a mix of body odor, various human secretions, tobacco, garlic sausage and onions, damp laundry hung to dry, though nothing ever dries.

“Frieda, let’s go out on deck, get some air,” Pearl urges her sister.

“I’m staying,” Frieda says, her voice muffled in her bedsheet. She fears the churning waves that crash over the deck, leaving behind a lacy foam.

Pearl has yet to meet a wave that would dare try to frighten her. Until this journey, she’d never seen the sea, and she recalls her surprise when she first realized that it wasn’t blue. More like a dirty gray, or when the sun shines, the color of steel.

So Pearl leaves her sister, climbs up on deck to watch the ocean—an ocean! Such sounds it makes, the rhythmic crashing of waves, or a loud moan like a mama bear protecting her cub. Some people only run up here to vomit into the sea. They’re in such a hurry they don’t check the wind, and their mess splatters back in their faces.

That’s what you get, Pearl thinks, when you try to fight the ocean.

* * *




Dear Reader,

This picture of my grandmother from 1922 inspired my novel, Hotel Cuba. Imagine this young woman from a traditional Russian shtetl, beset by anti-Semitic violence, war, and the Russian Revolution, arriving in, of all places, Havana, Cuba, during the time of Prohibition, with the music, the food, and American tourists flocking to the island to get drunk.

When I saw this picture, I had to know: Who was this woman I knew only as my grandmother? What was her story? How did she have the profound courage to leave everyone and everything she knew behind forever and cross an ocean to come to Havana, Cuba, where she lived for a year before coming to the United States? What did it feel like to go from the mud and snow of war-torn, small-town Russia to a tropical Caribbean island with the language, the food, the music, the people, the intense heat—all of this deeply unfamiliar—and how would these experiences transform a life?

I did exhaustive research to try to find the possible answers to these questions, to breathe life into this story that was lost to history. I traveled to Cuba, where my grandmother paid an American couple to pretend that she was their daughter and smuggle her to Key West. I also went to Key West, where my grandmother was arrested as soon as she got off the boat—and in fact, I found the exact spot where this picture was taken, which today happens to be a well-known brunch spot called Sarabeth’s. I visited the National Archives to read the original correspondence of the immigration officials of the time dealing with an issue that continues to make headlines. And I read everything I could get my hands on, learning surprising details that I incorporated into my narrative to make it a juicy story, for example: why women used to cross-dress to get into the United States.

As I wrote my novel, I was fascinated by the many resonances between what my grandmother experienced and what we read in
the news today. Ultimately, I believe the story of immigration is a quintessentially Jewish story as old as the Passover Seder, and a human story, one that’s still with us now as immigrants continue to make the same choices my grandmother made one hundred years ago.

Aaron Hamburger