From School Library Journal
Grade 9 Up—Often, popular knowledge of Cuba begins and ends with late-20th-century textbook fare: the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Fidel Castro. The Surrender Tree
, however, transports readers to another, though no less tumultuous, era. Spanning the years 1850–1899, Engle's poems construct a narrative woven around the nation's Wars for Independence. The poems are told in alternating voices, though predominantly by Rosa, a "freed" slave and natural healer destined to a life on the lam in the island' s wild interior. Other narrators include Teniente Muerte
, or Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter turned ruthless soldier; José, Rosa's husband and partner in healing; and Silvia, an escapee from one of Cuba's reconcentration camps. 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. Aside from its considerable stand-alone merit, this book, when paired with Engle's The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano
(Holt, 2006), delivers endless possibilities for discussion about poetry, colonialism, slavery, and American foreign policy.—Jill Heritage Maza, Greenwich High School, CT
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*Starred Review* As in The Poet Slave of Cuba (2006), Engle’s new book is written in clear, short lines of stirring free verse. This time she draws on her own Cuban American roots, including stories from her grandmother, to describe those who fought in the nineteenth-century Cuban struggle for independence. At the center is Rosa, a traditional healer, who nurses runaway slaves and deserters in caves and other secret hideaways. Her husband, José, a freed slave, also speaks, and so does a refugee child, whom Rosa teaches to be a healer. Then there is the vicious slave hunter known as Lieutenant Death; his collection of ears is an unforgettable image of brutality (“shown as proof that the runaway slave / died fighting, resisting capture”). 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. Grades 6-12. --Hazel Rochman