Patti Sheehy remembers thinking, this story has everything: Bravery, romance, suspense, and an evocative historical backdrop. Plus, it was true.
She decided the best way to convey the emotions as well as the political ramifications of a young Cuban soldier's daring 1967 escape to America was as a novel.
"It was a story that needed to be told, and I wanted to do it justice," says the author, 66, of Haddon Heights.
And while The Boy Who Said No won't arrive in bookstores from Oceanview Publishing until June 4, the most important reviews for Sheehy's literary debut are already coming in.
Frank Mederos, whose story it is (he's also the narrator), loves the novel. The Happy Bookers, the monthly Haddon Heights reading group that encouraged fellow member Sheehy to write, loves it too.
The borough library also is enthusiastic, selecting The Boy Who Said No to launch One Book Haddon Heights, in which residents are encouraged to read and discuss the same book. It starts in June.
"No one really knew the whole story until now," says Mederos, 66, of Mullica Hill. He works at an embroidery plant in Glassboro; Sheehy met a member of his family in 2008, and one thing led to another.
"Now the story is being shared with America," Mederos adds. "The message is that freedom is not free, that we have to treasure our freedom."
Says Joyce Hermann, 65, the book club's founder and host, "The novel is exceptional on many levels. I fell in love with it; I had goose bumps. To me, it reads like a movie."
Having spent last weekend reading it, I agree. This is a big, energetic story, and it has cinematic sweep.
Mederos is 12 in 1959 when Fidel Castro replaces a corrupt capitalist regime with a corrupt communist dictatorship. As Mederos grows into a young man, he becomes an astute eyewitness to the totalitarian's malevolent follies.
The shortages, sloganeering, and surveillance of Castro's police state drive thousands to risk their lives in little boats to get to America. Mederos' own journey involves going AWOL, hiding in an outhouse, and more, and the author renders it beautifully.
I was deeply moved by the scenes of the little band of ordinary Cubans with whom Mederos made his final attempt at freedom. Sheehy's decision to build the book around Mederos' firsthand accounts, augmented by novelistic reconstructions of scenes where he was not present, works well.
The author grew up in Yardley and earned a degree in history from Rider University. She was working in public relations when she first spoke to Mederos in 2008.
She intended to write his family history. But after the first interview - which took three hours - Sheehy began to reconsider.
"The more I listened, the more I realized that this was more than a family history," she says.
Author and subject began to meet weekly. He would review material Sheehy wrote after the previous session, and then he would share the next event of his young life.
"Frank told the story in sequence, and he was a marvelous storyteller," Sheehy says. "I wanted to capture that voice."
She did, and the collaboration continued; Sheehy has "written and delivered" a sequel to the publisher, an independent house in Florida that specializes in mysteries and thrillers.
Finding a publisher took longer than writing and editing, says Sheehy, who credits the support and comfort of the Bookers, as well as other friends, with helping her stay positive.
She had another source of inspiration as well.
"The message of the book is, not to give up hope, to keep on going," Sheehy notes. "Frank didn't give up."