Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle (Pura Belpre Award Winner)

Published in 2008
Poetry Collection

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle is a Pura Belpre Award winning historical novel that is divided into five parts and includes a series of poems written in first person point-of-view. Although there are no illustrations, the book is easy and enjoyable to read because of its poetic structure. Engel begins her book with the following historical notes:

"On October 10, 1868, a handful of Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence from Spain. Throughout the next three decades of war, nurses hid in jungle caves, healing the wounded with medicines made from wild plants."

"On February 16, 1896, Cuban peasants were ordered to leave their farms and villages. They were given eight days to reach 'reconcentration camps' near fortified cities. Anyone found in the countryside after eight days would be killed."

"My great-grandparents were two of the refugees" (Opening Page).

The two main characters in the story, Rosa and Jose, who eventually marry as the plot unfolds, established and served as nurses in make-shift hospitals that were forced to move from place to place and were often hidden in forests or caves during these wars. This book is about their experiences; however, Engle notes, "So little is known about the daily routines of Rosa and Jose that I have taken great liberties in imagining their actions, thoughts, and feelings" (161). The actual Lieutenant Death, who appears in the story as the antagonist, calls the rebels "little witches" and sought to kill them in real life. Only two of the characters are purely fictional: Silvia and the oxcart driver.

Although this book is beautifully written, I found it difficult to read and write about because I lack a good understanding of Cuban history. As I read each poem, I had so many questions: Who were these people? What were these wars truly about? How does Communism fit into the picture? What is going on in Cuba today? And why have so many Cubans fled their country to come to America? Why didn't things get better after three decades of war?

Without the author's note, the historical note, and the chronology at the end of the book, I wouldn't have had a clue as to what was going on in the story. A great deal of historical research would have to be done in order for this book to be truly meaningful for its readers, especially for children or young adults. This is the kind of novel that would have to be read and reread several times to truly understand its meaning.

It is obvious this book holds a special place in the heart of the author because she dedicated the book in memory of her maternal great-grandparents who survived the wars, but I believe it would be difficult for young people to place this book in its historical context. However, this book could be used to encourage students to learn more about Cuba and its history. Curious students who love history and would be willing to spend the necessary time conducting research would find this book fascinating.

Margarita Engle
Pura Belpre Award

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