Nearly 60 years ago, a young sailor named Don Roth found himself aboard a Navy ship along the coast of Cuba. It was 1958, and the island nation was on the brink of a revolution.
Roth, 81 — who now divides his time between Bethany Beach and south Florida — recalls his ship barreling toward Santiago “lights blazing… headlights illuminating the mountains” during one particularly intense period. He later realized the Raymond, a destroyer escort, was taking part in a raid.
He had actually been on a ship offshore from Guantanamo twice before, as an NROTC midshipman, but it was the later visit — and that incident — that would bring him, eventually, to write his first novel.
While he started writing the novel about that particular incident, he said he became convinced during the writing process that the story should stay focused on his main character — a young Cuban woman. The resulting novel, “The Girl from Guantanamo,” has now been published by Select Books.
The historical fiction novel tells the story of Pilar Ruiz, a young Cuban woman who joins the Castro Revolution. Her family flees Cuba to escape Batista’s cruelty, and in Miami she finds herself caught between forces in her new country, where her father is accused by the FBI of supporting the Cuban rebel cause, and the brutal situation in Cuba.
Roth said he still plans to pursue the other story in a future book.
“People said, ‘You’ve got a great book. You’ve got a great character. Save the other stuff for another book.’”
During his long career in law and as an entrepreneur, Roth said, he never imagined that he would someday become the author of a novel. His academic career included degrees from Columbia College, New York University Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Roth said that being a young child during World War II was formative.
“I can’t remember anything about Dec. 7, 1941, but I can remember everything about Dec. 8, 1941,” he said.
Books, Roth said, were another important influence on him during his youth. He recalls being a voracious reader, of everything from the 1920s-era Bomba Boy adventure series to William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
The book, though relatively short, at 192 pages, packs in several layers of storytelling. It begins in the present day, with a south Florida “tabloid” reporter stumbling onto what he believes could be the story of his career — the discovery of the adventurous Pilar, still alive and apparently of sound mind — and willing to tell her tale.
The journalist’s discovery comes at a time when the United States is beginning to normalize relations with the Cuba for the first time in decades, and Pilar wants to help promote understanding between the two nations.
Likewise, Roth himself hopes his book contributes to discussions about relations between Cuba and the United States. He said he is “not happy” about President Donald Trump’s recent announcement regarding his intention of deconstructing the moves his predecessor made toward lifting longstanding economic sanctions against the neighboring nation.
Calling Trump’s move “short-sighted and foolish,” Roth said, “I hope this book gives me a voice” in future discussions on the topic.
Though most of “The Girl from Guantanamo” recounts Pilar’s often-harrowing but fictional tale, there are passages of actual history — separated by their italic type — interspersed throughout the book. Roth said that, during the research and writing process, he had the help of friends who traveled to Cuba. At the time, he was recovering from quadruple bypass surgery and was unable to travel.
Roth, however, is no stranger to travel or adventure. He said that he traveled to Tehran, Iran, frequently in the days before the revolution there and at one point “it started getting more and more scary” there — he noted particularly that the abuse of women increased dramatically. He recalled feeling so much danger in the air there that whenever he went out, “I would memorize the route from where I was going to the embassy.”
He said he was considering writing a book about that period when he saw the movie “Argo” and realized that the story he had to tell was quite similar.
While Roth freely owns up to the similarity in title, and even somewhat in style, between his books and the popular series by the late Stieg Larsson, he said he has met Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, and she was quite encouraging of him in his endeavor to publish his own book. Roth refers to his heroine as “the 1958 version of Lisbeth Salander. She’s every bit as tough as Lisbeth Salander,” he said.
Also encouraging him along the way — especially during the three years it took Roth to write the book — was his wife of 61 years, Jacqueline. She teased him, he said, that her lasting picture of him during that period “is looking at my back, hunched over the computer.”
Not only did Jaqueline Roth provide moral support, Roth said, but she also proofread the book.
“Without her, this wouldn’t have been here,” he said, patting a copy of his novel.
His daughter, Stacey Brumbaugh, also supported the project by helping him find an agent and connecting him with writers and others who helped him fine-tune the book.
Roth also credited members of a writer’s club in Florida, as well as the Rehoboth Beach Writer’s Guild, with encouraging him along the way. Having had the pleasure of being at the Jacob Javitz Center for the 2017 Book Expo, he said he feels humbled by the positive early buzz about the book.
“I feel like I don’t deserve the endorsements,” he said of the comments from several well-known authors and a movie producer that grace the cover of the book.
But now, having had a taste of the satisfaction of seeing his book published, Roth said he is far from finished writing. Among others, he said, he wants to write a book that takes the reader from the Spanish Inquisition to present-day Cuba — incorporating more adventures of his favorite heroine, Pilar, and other characters in the book.
“I’ve got three or four books in mind, and every one of them links to a character that’s in here,” he said.
“It’s been that kind of a life,” he said, “and I’ve got a lot more books to write.”
“The Girl from Guantanamo” will be available at local book stores, including Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, as well as online at Roth’s website, at www.donrothauthor.com. Four copies have also been donated to the South Coastal Library in Bethany Beach.