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In the tradition of Annie John and The House on Mango Street, a bewitching coming-of-age novel from a bright new literary talent.
Verdita Ortiz-Santiago has spent eleven years in her sleepy Puerto Rican mountain town and she’s desperate to break away from her sheltered home life. Over the course of two tumultuous years, Verdita experiences the rush of disobedience, the heartache of unforeseen consequences, and the bittersweet pains of adult understanding. And for Verdita, her family, and her island home, life will never be the same.
Rooted in author Sarah McCoy’s own heritage, Puerto Rico’s quiet interior towns, bustling San Juan, and the burgeoning Independence Movement all serve as a vibrant backdrop to Verdita’s journey. Sarah McCoy grew up visiting her grandparents and large extended family in Puerto Rico and her true experiences permeate every page, leaving readers an experience of the island in which they feel the ocean breeze, taste the rum in the coquito, and smell the sharp citrus of sour orange.
A moving portrait of adolescence, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico is about much more than growing older. It is the universal story of discovering one’s own identity, the heartbreak of learning the truth about the people we love, and the difficulties of leaving behind one’s homeland for places unknown. With one of the most charming heroines in recent years, Sarah McCoy delivers a lyrical, authentic, and radiant debut.
“This is a beautiful, little coming-of-age novel about one girl’s bittersweet journey of self-discovery. Steeped in Puerto Rican culture and rich in authentic detail, McCoy’s debut captures the essence of life in Puerto Rico and, without judgment, holds it up for comparison against the American way of life.”—Booklist
“This touching coming-of-age debut novel transcends borders and times. Readers will laugh and cry along with Verdita as she navigates a tumultuous adolescence, easily identifying with her problems and struggles. As a result, the novel will appeal to a wide range of readers, and the addition of discussion questions is a plus for book groups.”—Library Journal
“The book is ripe with the lush island’s landscape, culture, and foods, as well as the political upheaval of the 1960s. Verdita’s experience, though, is universal, as she must reconcile both the passion she witnesses and the changes in her own body with a child’s perspective of the world. McCoy’s intoxicating novel is perfect for multicultural literature classes and best compares with Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (Knopf, 1994) and Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (Penguin, 1992).”—School Library Journal
“McCoy’s lyrical writing is absorbing”—Publishers Weekly
“Sarah McCoy tells a story of magic, myth, and mystery amid political and cultural unrest. You can’t help loving Verdita, the world she comes from and the world she yearns for. A delightful debut by a promising and saucy new writer.”—Sheri Reynolds, author of A Gracious Plenty and Oprah’s Book Club Rapture of Canaan
“Like snow in Puerto Rico, this novel is a rare pleasure. A sparkling debut by a writer who possesses a feel for place and time, a sense of the sacrifices love calls us to, and an uncommon talent for mapping the territory of the heart.” —Janet Peery, author of Alligator Dance and National Book Award Finalist The River Beyond the World
“Sarah McCoy has written a story so replete with sensuality, so infused with love and community, so exquisitely observant and poetic, the reader can only wish for a package tour to the dream that is Verdita’s life.”—Sandra Scofield, author of Occasions of Sin and National Book Award Finalist Beyond Deserving
The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico
For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas. He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins. On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips. Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose. Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep. Mamá and I did, too. She sat beside me under Papi’s snow until we shivered and held each other close to warm back up.
After the balls were chiseled into a pile of white, we poured passionfruit syrup over it and ate right from the bowl. The sweet flakes made my mouth cold and itchy, and I had to suck my lips to warm my tongue. We couldn’t eat it all, though; it turned to a puddle under the sun. Papi said snow did that, changed into everyday water. I’d never been in a snowfall before. I didn’t know.
That night, the first heat wave of the season swept over the island and nobody could sleep. I lay in bed, the outside
fever making my underwear dig into my skin and itch.
“Papi, tell me a story,” I said. Miserable, I wanted the everyday to shift to dreams.
“You’re too old for stories now. Why don’t I read about Jacob and Isaac?” Mamá liked it best when he read from the Bible at bedtime. She believed it would help me dream good things. Papi took a seat in my bamboo chair. The ceiling fan clicked around- around. “Or maybe Daniel in the lion’s den?” He winked at me.
When I was little, I had a crush on the brave and mighty Daniel who played with lions. Mamá disapproved. She said that it wasn’t right for someone to have romantic feelings for a dead man, never mind a dead holy man. Papi said it was better Daniel of the Bible than Roberto Confresi, the pirate.
“Can’t I hear the story of my name?” I asked.
In Puerto Rico, everybody had two names. One was printed on a birth certificate. Another was the one you were
called, the name you answered to, and that name always came with a story. Mamá’s birth certificate said “Monaique.”
Papi’s said “Juan.” But nobody called them that because those names had no story.
They called Papi Faro, “Light house,” because as a child he loved to watch the flashing light on Aguadilla Beach. My
abuela, Mamá Juanita, said they often went to Aguadilla to visit her brother’s family. On one par tic u lar visit, the family stayed up late listening to troubadour songs, and just before bed, Mamá Juanita noticed that Papi wasn’t with
the group. Everyone searched the house, but he was gone. Then, from the kitchen window, she saw a small, soft hump sitting outside on the beach rock. It was Papi. He stared out toward the sea, watching the light house beam slice the black again and again. When she asked what he was doing, he said, “Keeping watch.” Mamá Juanita called him Little Faro, and the nickname stuck.
They called my mamá Venusa because as a girl she nearly drowned while surfing the northwest coast of Puerto
Rico. Papi told me how a wave rolled over and pulled her down to the coral bottom. The Ocean King saw her there,
her black hair streaking the blue, and thought her so lovely that he decided to change her into a mermaid. The seaweed wrapped her legs and the coral caged her. Mamá prayed for a miracle—to return to our island. Then, just
when she thought her skin would change to scales, a rush of water pushed her from the King’s prison, up through
the blue- green, until her eyes saw the sun and her skin sparkled pink. She’d been gone so long that everyone believed her dead, lost to the ocean world. But she was reborn, like the goddess Venus.
Those were the stories we lived by. Who my parents were, who I was. My birth certificate said “Maria Flores Ortiz- Santiago,” but they called me Verdita. Papi kept all our certificates on the shelf in his study beside three dead
roosters with black marble eyes. The names were as lifeless as the cocks with their sawdust guts. Only our nicknames
were alive. Papi told my story best.
He leaned back in the chair. “Venusa, Verdita wants to hear her story again.”
From the kitchen where Mamá scrubbed the scales off codfish, she laughed. “She’s like you. Head in the clouds.”
But I was glad to be like Papi. Mamá wasn’t a good storyteller. She forgot parts or added things from the priest’s
sermons. Papi always remembered it right and always began the same way.
He closed the Bible. “Your story started long before you left your mamá’s body, before you took your first breath. Your soul spoke to me from heaven.” I curled up my toes and closed my eyes, concentrating on Papi’s words.
In a dream, Papi stood alone on a strange and colorful beach, unlike any in Puerto Rico. The ocean was unusually
calm, and the air was silent except for the lull of the breeze through the coconut palms. No lick of seaweed or burrow of crayfish—the sand sparkled in rainbow pebbles. In the distance was Mamá, her wavy hair caught in the breeze, black against the light. Papi went to her.
I imagined the beach like the photograph I kept in the crack of my mirror. In it, Mamá stood between bright
umbrellas and candy-colored towels, a beach carnival. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, and I could hear
laughter through the glossy paper. On the back was written Visit to Orlando and Lita Virginia Beach, 1950. It was taken just before she got pregnant with me, just before Papi had his dream.
He leaned forward in the chair. “And just as I reached her, I heard a burst of water. A sea spout lifted some fifty feet in the air. So high that I had to shield my eyes against the brightness of the sky and the white surf. I was afraid it was the Ocean King come for Venusa at last. But she turned and smiled. She knew what I didn’t. From the top of the spout, a parrot with emerald feathers and two gleaming green eyes flew from the watery perch and landed on my shoulder.”
I took a deep breath and held it.
“That was your spirit,” Papi continued. “I have never seen such a beautiful bird on earth.”
Papi leaned in and kissed my forehead. I could smell the soap and the little bit of Old Spice aftershave that he used so long ago, when the day was first born. I breathed him in.
In my story, Mamá had a handful of sesame seeds, and she fed them to the parrot until it was full. Then it took
flight, spreading its emerald wings in the coconut breeze, up, up into the cloudless blue. It left behind a single green
feather. Papi tucked it in the front of his shirt for safekeeping, but when he woke from the dream, it was gone.
“And I was searching the bed looking everywhere for the feather when your mamá came into the room with a cup of café con leche. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her that I had lost something important. That’s when
she told me she was going to have a baby. You were inside her. And I knew the parrot in my dream was you.”
At this point in my story, I always got sleepy. My sheets hugged my body; my pillow cupped my head. I closed my
eyes but listened still.
“I told your mamá about the dream and she agreed. God must have put me on the shore of heaven so you could
come to us.”
I buried my face deeper into the darkness.
“The day you were born, I walked outside our house and noticed the whoosh of the breeze through the palms,
just like in my dream. Mamá’s water broke. She was in labor. We thought you were a boy at first—all the troubles
she had. I had to take her to the hospital in San Juan because the barriomidwife was busy delivering two other
children, and I knew she could not deliver alone.
“I sat outside of the operating room, waiting and watching for the doctor. Those were dark hours. But then a nurse came and took me to you. When I held you that first time, you opened your eyes and looked into mine. Big green eyes. Verde. Just like the parrot. And I knew we had met before. My Verdita.”
Sleep washed over me like one of the waves on Papi’s dream beach, soft and soundless.
Excerpted from The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy. Copyright © 2010 by Sarah McCoy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: In The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico, the description of the sights and smells of Puerto Rico are so evocative, the reader feels transported to the Caribbean. What sounds, tastes, smells, etc. make you feel transported to that region?
A: In my daily life, I’m incredibly influenced by my senses. The sound of the wind through summer leaves reminds me of lazy Virginia days. The taste of lemon-drop candies takes me back to the candy dish in my Oklahoma grandma’s house. When I see snowcapped mountains, I’m transported to my childhood in Germany. The smell and feel of gardenia buds against my cheek reminds me of my grandparent’s farm in Puerto Rico. Having been a child in a military family, I’ve lived a gypsy life so my memories are a sensory stewpot. I get unending glee running into a sight, smell, sound, taste, or feeling that instantaneously takes me back somewhere I thought I’d forgotten but no, it’s there inside of me.
In writing this novel, I had the advantage of going home to Puerto Rico about 3/4th of the way through writing. It was incredibly helpful to stand on the porch of our house and look out over the island, seeing it both as my familiar home and as the new place I’d created in my imagination. I took copious notes and photos of all the small details – the roosters crowing each dawn, the way my bed sheets stuck to my body in the July heat, the taste of coconut milk drunk right from the hairy nut, my grandma’s singing as she cooked, the clean smell of my grandpa’s cologne and starch in his guayabera, everything. I wanted to experience it all fresh to help evoke my childhood memories. From that trip, I was able to fully remember details of things that before had only been bleary recollections: the first time I saw a cockfight and then faced frozen chicken feet in Grandma’s freezer; the beat of bongo drums and click of my mom’s dancing heels on the tiles; the smell and taste of Grandma’s sofrito sizzling in a pot. These and so much more transport me to Puerto Rico.
As a writer, I believe one of my most fundamental jobs is to create what John Gardner called “the fictional dream.” Meaning, I’m recreating Puerto Rico on the page in the hopes of transporting my readers to that reality. As human beings, we process our world through our senses; therefore, it’s crucial that I provide as much tactile description as possible. Of course, there must be balance. A book of all description is nothing without the beating hearts of characters within, but it’s through those characters’ sensory experiences that the reader is able share in their worlds.
Q: At heart, this is a novel about the meaning of family. How did your family shape the story and the writing process? How do they feel about the book?
A: My family plays a vital role in both my life and my writing. I’m incredibly close with my parents and two brothers, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. They are my support system when I feel the sky is falling and my instantaneous parade party when I’m blessed with good news. A great focus of the novel is certainly family dynamics, which are always a combination of virtue and wickedness. The intriguing part is how we, as members of these manic amalgams, discover our own ability to love deeper and richer than the natural world should ever allow. It’s in that self-discovery that I believe we are privy to moments of divine understanding – moments when God peaks his head out of the clouds and says, “Hey there.” And I think families of every shape, size, color and fashion are the perfect construct for individuals to discover who they are, who they want to be, and who they were meant to be. This doesn’t just apply to coming of age either, though it is especially applicable to that life period. As I wrote the novel, my own familial experiences were definitely an influencing factor.
My family loves the book. They’ve been incredibly supportive. The only hesitation my grandpa had was my use of the word ?puta’ in Chapter Eight. As we all know, it’s not a very ladylike word. He petitioned me for a few weeks to use a milder epithet in its place, concerned that Puerto Rican readers would be dissuaded from reading my book because of its use. I dearly love my grandpa. He’s from a generation of men that bowed their hats to passing ladies and wore starched shirts every day. I admire that chivalry, but we no longer live in a G-rated world. (I would even argue that no one ever really has.) I couldn’t write authentically if I put rainbows and butterflies where lightning and mealybugs should be. The fact of the matter is, life – and families – are more interesting and identifiable when presented as they are, full of joy and sorrow, appreciation and disregard, pride and shame, love and hate. These yin-yangs are what make mine so precious to me.
Q: How much of the novel is based on personal experience?
A: For my first novel, one of my dear friends and writing mentors told me to write what I know, so I did. The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico is a compilation of experiences I lived, stories I heard from family members, events in old newspapers, and sheer whimsical imagination. Lucky for me, Puerto Rico is a culture in which the mysterious and magical thrive, so I was able to use that to my advantage. My mother is Puerto Rican and a majority of my extended family members continue to live on the island. So growing up, I’d fly to Puerto Rico once or twice a year. My grandparents own and live on a farm in the mountainous town of Aibonito. There, I first tasted coquito and ate arroz con pollo; learned to play dominos and how to salsa and bomba. As a child, my favorite instrument was the güiro and I still tear up when I hear it scraped alongside a mournful troubadour. Half of the time I don’t even understand the words being sung; but deep down I know the story because for that moment I’m part of the people. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been away or how much I’ve forgotten. I believe it’s that way for every culture. As an author, I try to capture that communal yet entirely individualized soulful experience; thereby, doing my best to bring as much honor as possible to my characters and settings.
Q: The oral storytelling tradition is strong in Puerto Rico, and the power of myth, fable, and story are evident in the shape of the novel. Did you think about these cultural touchstones as you were writing? If so, which ones?
A: To be honest, at first I didn’t think of them. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to insert an oral storytelling tradition here and a myth there.” I simply wrote in a way that was genuine to the characters. But in my imagination, I referred back to stories, myths, and fables from my childhood – stories my grandparents told sitting on the porch on hot Puerto Rican nights.
For instance, the myth of the Chupacabra. To this day, I get chills when my Grandma tells it and oh, does she love to tell it just as we’re winding our way through the dark jungle roads. I have two fully-grown brothers who are over six feet tall and built like bears, and it tickles me to no end to see them get goose bumps and lock the doors when Grandma begins her tale. It just goes to show the power of story. And I love to see that in this technology-driven age where digitally-enhanced movies, virtual reality video games, Internet, and instant messaging are all the rage, the storytelling traditions of our ancestors are vibrantly alive. Through them, emotions are moved, lives are impacted, and hearts are changed. It’s why I love to read and write, and why I know I’ll continue to do so for all the years I’m given.
Q: What aspect/character/moment in your book do you think book groups and other readers will talk about the most?
A: Good question. As an author, you write what moves you and pray that it moves others as well. Each morning at my writing desk, I pray that God would instruct the muses to do their work so I can do mine, and somehow something that comes out on the page will incite others to think, feel, and share what touches them in the story – what touches their lives. I hope the novel provokes lively discussions on a handful of themes: coming of age; identity; race; God, religion and the supernatural; magic in our everyday; love; family dynamics; sexual awakenings; gender roles and female empowerment, to name a few. Foremost, I’ll be interested to see how readers interpret Verdita. She’s my little Latina rebel without a cause, and I adore her for all her faults and accomplishments. She’s as much family to me as any of my Puerto Rican relatives. In terms of plot points, I’m eager to hear readers’ responses to Chapter Eight and Nine, where I feel Verdita takes a dynamic role in her own self-discovery.
Note: This Q&A is also available at Random House’s Book Group Around the World.