Truckee woman’s debut novel based on father’s true story of winning the lottery
Special to the Sun
Meet Celeste León
Short Story: storyhouse.org/celeste.html
Upcoming book signings
Thursday, Dec. 10: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Holiday Artisan Fair, Tahoe Forest Hospital, Eskridge Conference Room, Truckee
Thursday, Dec. 10: 5 to 7 p.m., Frankie’s Cottage (women’s boutique), 11012 Donner Pass Road, Truckee
Saturday, Dec. 12: 3 p.m., The Bookshelf, Westgate Shopping Center, Truckee
Wednesday, Dec. 16: 5 to 8 p.m., book launch party at The Lodge Pub and Restaurant in Tahoe Donner, Truckee, during Happy Hour.
TRUCKEE, Calif. — When it boils down to it, there are two simple ways to classify a book: published or unpublished, and Celeste León’s debut novel — “Luck is Just the Beginning” — is about to shift from the latter to the former.
“It was a painstaking process and it took a lot of self-discipline,” León said at her Tyrolian-style home in Tahoe Donner, surrounded by family knickknacks and stacks of her favorite books. “But I think it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, apart from my marriage, my daughter, and my graduate degree.”
It’s a dream 10 years in the making for the first-time novelist and long-time Truckee-based physical therapist, but the story itself is one that began to unfold long before Celeste was born, and was retold to her many times thereafter.
“I get emotional when I read certain parts of it because it is so personal,” she said with a tremulous smile. “It represents a little piece of myself, a piece of my father’s heart and a piece of my family’s heart.”
Published by Floricanto Press and available on Amazon as of Nov. 19, the book is based on the remarkable true story of Celeste’s father, Ramón León, and — more specifically — the lottery ticket he purchased on Nov. 17, 1944, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which changed the course of his life.
GAMBLING WITH LUCK
Born in 1925 as the youngest of 15, Ramón León was raised in the remote beachside village of Maunabo, Puerto Rico.
Around the time he was age seven, the now-90-year-old-retired Floridian had a painful toothache that warranted his first trip to the dentist, where he lost the tooth, but gained a dream to one day open the first dental practice in his otherwise poverty-stricken hometown.
“The heart of the story is very much the same — it’s the premise of a man who will do anything to help his family and his community, and accomplish his dream against all odds,” said Celeste, the youngest of Ramón’s three daughters.
Trudging forward in the years that followed, Ramón never lost sight of his dream, and by 1944, his time had finally come, bringing him luck by the thousands.
“A number came to him and he was so convinced of its importance, he bought his first lottery ticket, a whole sheet of them actually for the exorbitant price of 6 dollars in 1944, with all the money he had saved since he was a kid,” Celeste said. “The amazing thing was, he won the jackpot and used his winnings to keep a promise made years before to the people of his village in Puerto Rico.”
FINDING FOOTING IN FICTION
The idea for the novel — which began as a nonfiction short story in 2006 entitled, “A Lucky Man” — dawned on Celeste after reading James McBride’s autobiography and memoir, “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.”
“That book really resonated with me because his mother’s story was somewhat like my dad’s in that they both had tremendous challenges to overcome,” Celeste said. “No one in my father’s family had completed high school and Puerto Rico had no dental school at the time, so knowing almost no English, he traveled to the mainland U.S. to earn his degree.”
Celeste knew from the start that claiming she was writing a book was one thing, but actually sitting down and writing the book from cover to cover was a whole different story — one that needed fiction to see it through to the end.
“I wasn’t getting any offers from publishers when it was nonfiction, so about six years ago, I decided to morph it into fiction after a professor told me I should embellish the story and that it begs to be fiction,” she said. “It’s turned out to be such a fun process making up some characters and enriching those who really did exist.”
FROM WRONG TO WRITE
For Celeste, seeing the project to fruition was largely dependent upon the feedback and education gained from resources like twice-monthly meetings with her Reno-based writer’s group, attending summer workshops through the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and reading an ample amount of literature.
“Surround yourself with good people, get involved in a writer’s group with people who are kind, but can give you constructive criticism — and with whom you trust,” Celeste said, beaming with the reverie of a writer who just completed his or her first book. “I’ve met the most amazing people throughout this entire process, and my writing is better and my reading is better because of them.”
Writing the novel also made Celeste’s life richer in the sort of clandestine way writing about one’s life experiences often does.
“It became a project to educate my family because there are things they don’t know, that my sisters don’t know, that my daughter doesn’t really know about her grandfather in Puerto Rico,” Celeste said. “It’s such a rich, beautiful culture and it’s a really wonderful thing for her to learn.”
Many things happened in those ten years’ worth of sleepless nights, crippling self-doubt, moments of triumph, layers of family history, and endless revisions, but it all made the redemption of publishing the book that much sweeter for Celeste, and for her father, whose legendary tale will travel from the peaks of Puerto Rico to the mountains of Lake Tahoe, and beyond.
“I had to see it through to the end because we may all die someday, but books will still be here — this book will still be here,” Celeste said. “And there will be old, yellowed copies left behind that will outlive all of us — they will grow older than we ever will, and I love that.”
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.