The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle to Freedom by Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle to Freedom by Margarita Engle margarita engle

Published: April 1st 2008 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Source: local library

Synopsis (Goodreads): It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in reconcentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her.

Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war? Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle has created another breathtaking portrait of Cuba.
The Surrender Tree is a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, the winner of the 2009 Pura Belpre Medal for Narrative and the 2009 Bank Street – Claudia Lewis Award, and a 2009 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year

My thoughts:

This series of interlocking poems form a story, told from different characters point of view: Lieutenant Death, the slave catcher, and Rosa, a healer, are the main voices, but there are also poems told from the point of view of Jose, a freed slave who rosa agrees to marry Rosa, Lieutenant-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicoulau, and Silvia, a girl whose parents are sick.

The stark, blank verse is arresting and powerful. Each character has a distinct voice and each piece contributes to the overall story, which is an important one.

When I was in graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for a professor writing about women in Cuba’s liberation movements throughout history, so I am more aware of this time period than perhaps an average reader since I spent 20 hours a week reading primary source documents, many of which related to the Spanish-American War, but I still felt this collection of poetry gave me new insight into the time period. It’s the depth of the characters that truly brings this story to life. Jose and Rosa, in particular, were inspiring in their actions and in the way they related to one another:

Jose and I are both learning / How to learn. (p. 42)

Historical realities of war are not always the easiest concepts to introduce to younger readers. As much as our lives are saturated with war, it’s simultaneously removed from most people’s daily struggles. Engle’s stark imagery captures the personal aspect of war.

 War is like the game of gallina ciega, blind hen. / We hide. they seek. (p. 134)

The grim reality is that today, this still rings true:

Our Cuban flag/Is still forbidden (p. 156)

Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree is a beautifully rendered history of Cuba’s struggle for independence. The blank, sparse verse will captivate readers.

Second opinions:

Gathering Books: “Once again, Margarita has created a powerful narrative that brings a different vitality to history that it has heretofore lacked (at least for me) – she has imbued a sense of being where previously there were only historical dates, facts, and figures lost in the annals of texts hardly read by both children and adults alike. She has made Rosa’s story come alive – as well as this period in Cuba that may not be accessible to most people.” NOTE: This post also has information about the historical context and a fantastic summary.

Kirkus: “Tales of political dissent can prove, at times, to be challenging reads for youngsters, but this fictionalized version of the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain may act as an entry to the form. The poems offer rich character portraits through concise, heightened language, and their order within the cycle provides suspense.”

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