Friday, February 6, 2009

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

The events of The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom span 50 years, from the childhood of Rosa and Lieutenant Death to the end of the War for Independence. Rosa is a child who learns the healing powers of the plants of the forest. Lieutenant Death is the son of a slave catcher who learns from his father how to hunt escaped slaves. These two characters share the narration, all told in verse, in Part One (1850-1851).

Part Two tells the events of the Ten Years' War (1868-1878), again with Rosa and Lieutenant Death (now adults) sharing narrative duties, adding Jose, Rosa's husband, and two pages from a Lieutenant-General from Spain. Rosa tells of healing the sick and the injured. Lieutenant Death continues his father's job of hunting slaves.

Parts Three and Four continue through the the Little War (1878-1880) and the War of Independence (1895-1898). Silvia, a young girl who lost her entire family in a reconcentration camp, is added to the narrative mix, expressing her desires to learn the art of healing from Rosa, now a Cuban legend.

Part Five (1898-1899) closes with the events after the War of Independence, telling of Spain's exit, and the United States' involvement and subsequent occupation. Characters are still left with a desire for freedom, feeling they have only exchanged one "foreign tyrant" for another.

It's a book about war. All the events you'd think should be in there are there: atrocities, death, murder, revenge, betrayal. There's also Rosa's desire to do good, always good, healing everyone, both friend and enemy, and never accepting payment, for healing comes from God. Events are told in only enough detail so the imagination will fill in the rest, often times with the most gruesome details. I'm not big on filling in gruesome details of war with my imagination.

Whether or not The Surrender Tree is a Newbery-quality distinguished book is a debate I'll leave to others. Regardless of the results of their debate, I don't see this book flying off classroom library shelves or being passed student to student.

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