Ch_jank-caporale's Reviews > The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle
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Mar 21, 2010

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bookshelves: poetry
Read in March, 2010

I learned more about Cuba's history in "The Surrender Tree" than in Engle's "Poet Slave of Cuba" yet both tell the story of struggle for freedom from oppression. "The Poet Slave" is an individual story, one exceptional individual's struggle against the brutality and hopelessness of slavery. It's told through multiple voices of slave, freedman, and owner. The other one (Surrender Tree)is a collective story told through voices of the freedom fighters, the slave catchers, and the colonizers. Both stories are painful to read because of the cruelties and the descriptions of punishment, separation, and ultimately of dreams deferred.
Although Juan Francisco Manzano was a poet, I surprisingly enjoyed the verse more in "The Surrender Tree", though the style is so similar that I have trouble separating the two books. I suspect that because we "hear" "the poet slave" most often through his perspective, the repetition of lines, phrases, and themes were an accurate reflection of a "poet's work," but at times they caused me to lose my engagement. "The Surrender Tree" had similar repetitions but they served to describe the endless cycle of battles, war, and fragile peace that is Cuba's history.
I enjoy reading verse novels and these two presented a picture of a nation's history I was previously unfamiliar with. Though I didn't learn the stuff I'd learn in a history text, I the struggle of individuals to deal with the madness and depravities of slavery and war. The setting could have been at any time, in any place; that is part of the beauty of verse. It presents a universality that makes metaphor of life.
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Ruth You will enjoy Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, Engle's most recent publication (2009). Written in free-verse, this text chronicles one boy's escape from the Holocaust and the long journal that resulted in finally arriving in a country that grudginly accepted his boat--Cuba. Told in alternating voices between the protagonist and an young Cuban girl, this slice of Cuban history within the backdrop of WWII is as little known as her previous books.


Ch_jank-caporale Thanks. I will definitely check it out. Actually, I recently began research into Caribbean escape for Jews during the Holocaust, especially to the Dominican Republic, where Trujillo hoped to whiten the population by giving refuge to European Jewry. My only knowledge of Cuba's aid is related to its subsequent refusal to accept refugees on the St. Louis who were eventually returned to Europe where most faced their eventual end. Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands granted passengers asylum at the last minute- but within months, Belgium and the Netherlands fell to the Nazis anyway; only those who went to Britain survived.


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