Engle, Margarita. The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. Henry Holt and Company LLC: New York, NY. 2008. ISBN: 0805086744
The Surrender Tree is a novel about Cuba’s struggle against Spain for freedom. Told from the view of several people, mainly from Rosa, a nurse, this novel will captivate you and force you to see the plight of the slaves of Cuba.
Writing a novel in verse is an incredibly arduous task. One that many people are unsuccessful at. To write around near 100 poems all telling a story and connecting together is a talent only few possess. Margarita Engle is one of those few. Her poems that string together to form the story of Cuba’s struggle for freedom and the abolition of slavery from Spain will leave you breathless. Her strength is her character Rosa, a healer (nurse) who turned caves into hospitals. It is from her point of view we read the most of.l While the point of view changes, it is mostly all about Rosa. Even when other people are speaking it is about her. From Silvia’s point of view “I stare, he stares, then we both smile. Rosa, I hear myself chant the name over and over, begging for a flower-woman who will teach me how to save lives.” (Engle, 2008.) Or from Lieutenant Death: “As this Little War ends, I ask myself how many years will pass before I finally have my chance to kill Rosa the Witch…” (Engle, 2008.)
The poetry is free verse, meaning, it doesn’t rhyme. And although it lacks a metered rhyme, you can still feel the beat of the story. When reading this, especially out loud, it is important to remember to include the punctuation. That is how you know the rhythm. Beautiful prose poetry strung together to tell a compelling and captivating story, Engle forces you to look at the world outside your own. She makes you realize that slavery is not unique to your country, but was and still is a world wide catastrophe.
Her second strongest point is telling the story through other people. We don’t just see what it’s like for Rosa and Silvia and any of the others fighting this war, but we also see views from Spain or from people like Lieutenant Death, whose job as a slave catcher depends on having slaves. I thought that was very well done. Not everything is black and white. Not everyone is good or evil. Even evil people have reasons for doing the things they do. Are those who fought for Spain not as justified in their war as those who fought for Cuba? It gives you something to think about. She generates a lot of empathy, but not just for the Cubans.
This books was absolutely marvelous. I would recommend this book highly to any Jr. High or High School class.
Newbery Honor Book 2009
Purpa Belpre Medal 2009
Bank Street-Claudia Lewis Award 2009
Bank Street- Best Children’s Book of the Year 2009
From School Library Journal: “The Surrender Tree is hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba’s troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments such as the glimpse of a woman shuttling children through a cave roof for Rosa’s care or the snapshot of runaway Chinese slaves catching a crocodile to eat. Though the narrative feels somewhat repetitive in its first third, one comes to realize it is merely symbolic of the unending cycle of war and the necessity for Rosa and other freed slaves to flee domesticity each time a new conflict begins.”
From Booklist: ” The switching perspectives personalize the dramatic political history, including the establishment of the world’s first “reconcentration camps” to hold prisoners, as well as the role of slave owners who freed their slaves and joined the resistance against Spain. Many readers will be caught by the compelling narrative voices and want to pursue the historical accounts in Engle’s bibliography.”
Other books by Margarita Engle:
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music ISBN: 0544102290
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist ISBN: 0547807430
Enchanted Air:Two Cultures, Two Wings, A Memoir ISBN: 1481435221
Other Verse Novels:
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins ISBN: 1416903569
Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong ISBN: 0810992582
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman ISBN: 0399257101