Love and war blend in “The Yankee Comandante”

I’m rarely drawn to books about war. But with Cuba back in the news, I picked up “The Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba” (Lyons Press, $26.95), by Pulitzer-winning journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss.

With a bit of dread, I turned on the gas fire and settled in with the book.

Surprise. I was captivated. Here is the tale of strapping, red-haired William Morgan from Toledo, Ohio, an ex-army sharpshooter, who decides in 1957 to aid the Cuban freedom fighters in wresting their country from the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s a powerful love story threading through. High on a mountain in Cuba’s Escambray, Morgan meets the beautiful Olga Rodriguez, also passionate about liberating her country, and they soon marry.

It becomes clear to the Second Front leaders, Morgan among them, that Batista is no longer the enemy. The enemies now are the counter-revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

I grew up in Miami, a mere 90 miles from Cuba. Like the DDT fumes to eradicate mosquitoes, the names Batista, Fidel and Che were always in the tropical air. But I knew little of the rugged beauty of Cuba’s mountains, the mist and vines “so tangled around trees that in some places they could barely see the sun.”

The authors’ ability to build character, set scenes and keep the action cracking is so skilled, that I called Mitch Weiss, a special projects reporter for the Associated Press in Charlotte, to ask how they managed this feat.

“One of the things we went out of our way to do was put the reader there, create this narrative, this page-turner,” says Weiss.

Indeed, the narrative is so vividly detailed you have to wonder: Did they sometimes step over the line into fiction?

No, says Weiss, once Sallah’s editor at The Toledo Blade when Sallah was writing profiles on Morgan. They had eyewitness accounts, including those of Morgan’s widow, Olga, who fled to Toledo after the revolution, as well as Olga’s diary of her years with Morgan. And they had access to many of the Second Front fighters who were elbow to elbow with Morgan and Olga. All those authentic details create a vivid reality.

Weiss says writing the book was a lot like character acting.

“You do so much reporting, you know the character so well, you become one with the character.”

Want to know more about the Cuban Revolution? Want history that reads like a novel? “The Yankee Comandante” is it.