Engle, M. (2009). The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's struggle for freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Appetizer: This novel in verse spans 30 years in the late 1800s to share about the several wars Cuba endured to try to gain its freedom from Spain. The narration switches point of view from poem to poem and focuses most closely on Rosa who would, in my words, become Cuba's SUPER-DOCTOR!!!!!!!
The story also shares the perspective of Jose (her husband), Lieutenant Death (a slave hunter who--fictionally--became obsessed with trying to kill her) and Silvia (a young girl who escapes a reconcentration camp in the hope of learning from Rosa).
At first this book was VERY difficult for me to read. I blame my lack of schooling on the history of Cuba. Around page 30, I skipped ahead to the historical note and timeline to try to figure out the history more clearly, but it didn't help too much. Eventually though, the characters' perspectives did win me over and I still managed to get into the story, but even after finishing the book, I still feel like I need a eighth grade social studies teacher to sit me down and explain the historical context of the book to me.
The reason the characters won me over was because Engle does a very interesting job of showing how the different characters perceive one another. As a child, Rosa, already a talented healer, doctors the son of a slavehunter, Lieutenant Death. She mentions that LD and his father tell lies to "seem like heroes," then in the next poem, LD shares his perspective and describes how he chooses to call "wild dogs" wolves to seem "truly brave" (pp. 8-9). This continues more as characters meet throughout the book.
Also interesting, by page 25, Rosa is an adult. Soon after she's married. For the next 50 pages, the poems follow an adult. This surprised me, since writers usually don't try to have readers engage too closely with adult characters. I think the fact that this is poetry helps, since readers can also focus on the imagery. I still felt thankful when Silvia, who is described as being eleven and twelve-years-old in the poems, was introduced. I felt that helped to make the book more child-focused once more. Plus, there's a poem narrated in Rosa's voice that begins "Today the children saved us" (p. 136).
Despite my above critiques, The Surrender Tree gives voice to an important aspect of history. It uses a lot of beautiful metaphors and (in a few cases startling) images to show the horrors of war. I really love the thought that lots of middle grade kids and young adults have the opportunity to explore this time period and conflict (that opens up to comparisons to other wars and times when concentration camps were used). I wish this story had been around when I was a kid. And that I had a teacher who would explain it to me.
"Some people call me a child-witch,
but I'm just a girl who likes to watch
the hands of the women
as they gather wild herbs and flowers
to heal the sick" (p. 3).
"Should I fight with weapons,
or flowers and leaves?
Each choice leads to another--
I stand at a crossroads in my mind,
deciding to serve as a nurse,
armed with fragrant herbs,
fighting a wilderness battle, my own private war
against death" (p. 27).
"Who could have guessed that after all these years,
the boy I called Lieutenant Death
when we were both children
would still be out here, in the forest,
chasing me, now,
hunting me, haunting me...." (p. 39).
"The angel-man brings me
tiny bits of smuggled food,
but there is never enough,
and my brothers are turning
into shadows" (p. 99).
Tasty Rating: !!!