Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

Author:  Margarita Engle
Published:  2008
Newbery Honor Book
Pura Belpre Award
Another great poetry book.  I think I'm liking free verse.  I picked this book only because I saw the gold coins on the front.  One for the Newbery Honor Book and the other for the Pura Belpre Award

This story is about Rosa, a former slave in Cuba.  She has knowledge to heal those that are injured by using the plants that are in her surroundings.  Rosa helps anyone regardless of their views.  Since she is open to helping anyone, she is able to get many that are fighting against Cuba's freedom to join her side. 

From the time that Rosa is a child, she is a healer.  The Spanish fear her and consider her to be a witch.  Once she is freed, she is hunted.  She is hunted because she is feared and because she heals everyone.  The story is told from Rosa's point-of-view primarily at the beginning, but there are other characters who also share their insights.  There is Lieutenant Death, who has known Rosa since they were both children.  He and his father would bring captured slaves back to Rosa so she could heal them and they could go back to work.  It becomes his life mission to capture Rosa even after she heals him of his injuries.  Jose, Rosa's husband also shares his struggles.  He fights to keep Rosa safe as the price for her life increases.  He protects the patients in her hospitals that are hidden throughout Cuba.  Silvia is another character in the story.  Her grandmother had been healed by Rosa in her youth.  Silvia has lost her family in reconcentration camps and is desperate to find Rosa to learn from her and to help her heal.  Finally, there are also poems from General Weyler.  Weyler wants to win Cuba back from Spain, but the number of innocent civilians that die in his reconcentration camps because they are not well cared for makes his command in Cuba a failure.

The United States becomes involved in the war when the USS Maine is destroyed in Havana Harbor.  There is no explanation for the explosion and Rosa thinks that maybe the US bombed its own ship so it could get involved in the war.  "Just to have an excuse for fighting in Cuba so close to the end of our three wars for independence." 

Jose wants to tell his wife that they have won this war for independence, but all he can tell her is that the war is over, but the Americans have taken over.  Rosa feels betrayed, she thought the Americans were there to help the Cubans.  The Cubans are not even allowed to participate in the surrender.  "Our Cuban flag is still forbidden."  Rosa is grateful for the peace and hope.  Silvia realizes that this is not the peace that she imagined, but she is still hopeful as well.

This story is based on fact.  There really was a Rosa who cared for people and her husband, Jose, who helped with the hospitals.  There really was a Lieutenant Death, but his role in the story is very fictionalized.  Unfortunately, we don't really know what happens to Lieutenant Death at the end of the story.  His last entry says that he is "lost and alone."  I could not find anything about his history and death in my searches on the Internet.

I was interested in knowing why Margarita Engle, the author, wrote in free verse.  This is history and she could have given us so much more information if this was written as a historical fiction novel.  She wrote:

 “When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba and The Surrender Tree as historical novels in free verse, I hoped that the form would appeal to young adult readers who want a full-length book with mature topics, but may be intimidated by the more crowded pages of traditional prose. Personally, I am in love with the novel in verse form. Poetry allows me to distill a complex story down to its emotional essence. I think students focus on the challenges characters face. The one comment I consistently get when teenagers write to me is: “I thought my own life was hard, but now I really appreciate all that I have.” (

I think Engle made a good choice.  As I read, I felt like I was in the minds of the characters and I could understand their experiences.  Children who read this book could easily begin to understand the experiences of Rosa and her fight to free Cuba.

I am a new fan of poetry.  I will search more books written in this way.  Poetry was always something so vague and scary in high school.  I think my teacher chose poems that were extremely difficult to understand to intimidate as opposed to inspire.  As I read about this book on the Internet, I find that I'm not alone in my fear of poetry. Exposure to this book and others like it (Inside Out & Back Again) might help change the minds of terrified high school students who despise poetry and history!

More books by Margartia Engle
Check this book out from your library.

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