The Surrender Tree
Henry Holt, 2008.
The 2009 winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Pura Belpré Award, and the Américas Award, among others, and named a Newbery Honor Book as well, Margarita Engle’s ambitious novel in verse, The Surrender Tree, uses five narrators to tell the sad and little-known story of Cuba’s many wars of independence during the second half of the 19th century.
Rosa, a slave child at the beginning of the story, becomes a traditional healer who uses native herbs and her own compassionate energy to care for the wounded from each side in the long years of Cuba’s battle for liberation. Her husband, José, also tells the story and supports her work, which takes place in secret mountain caves since there is a price on Rosa’s head. Other speakers are Lieutenant Death, who spends his life seeking in vain to capture Rosa; Silvia, a young healer who comes to apprentice with Rosa; and the Marquis of Tenerife, whose few poems demonstrate Spain’s singular ineptitude with its Cuban colony.
The Surrender Tree includes a personal author’s note, a historical note, a chronology, and a bibliography, but Engle tells her complex story through simple, page-long poems, clear and vibrant. The individual poems will give middle school children an appealing introduction to the verse novel form, despite the violence some of the poems report. Teen readers will also appreciate Engle’s fictionalized account of the historical period as well as her poetic accomplishment. Engle packs a great deal of meaning and emotional power into a few words and images, as this lament by Rosa illustrates:
“Garlic for parasites, indigo for lice,
wild ginger to soothe a cough,
jasmine for calming jittery nerves,
guava to settle the stomach,
aloe for burns.
Is there at least one wild,
for healing sorrow
and curing fear?”
Now that President Obama has opened the door to normalizing Cuban-American relations, the history of this beautiful beleaguered country needs to be better known by American children. In The Surrender Tree—readable, compassionate, and innovative—the poetic voices of fictional Cubans transmit the history, geography, culture and values of their country. Students may also appreciate the book as accessible context for understanding some gnarly issues in contemporary international relations.