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Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

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One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.
     From the young "silver people" whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Margarita Engle

56 books340 followers
Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She lives with her husband in northern California.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 156 reviews
225 reviews4 followers
January 28, 2014
I did not realize that this book was all poetry until after I got it. And I'm sorry to say that I feel the end result was to take an interesting story and make it very difficult and uninteresting to read. My 12 yo who loves history books of all types read a few pages and said it had some interesting facts but wasn't interesting to read itself. I'm inclined to agree. To me, much of it felt like prose that had been arbitrarily truncated to make short lines, which were then double-spaced so that the page had more white than type.

The sentences are broken

into pieces like shards

laying on the sand,

continuing onward,


ever onward.

I think the book would have been much more readable and enjoyable if written more normally.

Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for my review.
Profile Image for Kelly (Diva Booknerd).
1,106 reviews299 followers
November 21, 2014
Margarita Engle could only be considered a poet, her immaculate use the simplest of words have a incredible impact on the reader. Told from several points of view, the two main characters of Mateo and Henry represent how each class is treated differently, and more severe than the last, while local girl Anita watches her beloved forest being bulldozed and destroyed.

Silver People was incredible. A fictional story behind those who created the Panama Canal, it's told in verse giving the points of view workers, engineers, presidents, locals and forestry animals a powerful and poignant voice. This is just another example how I've fallen in love with the University of Queensland Press. They never fail to publish incredible novels with strong social and environmental messages that have the ability to incite change, emotions and the way we view the world. They are truly the environmental publisher of the young adult generation.

I loved the journey that Margarita Engle weaved and it's cemented my love of versed novels even further.
Profile Image for Melissa Barbier.
44 reviews
November 13, 2015
I loved this book. It is written in poetry the entire way through. There are different characters that tell their side of the story through their own poems. There are also sections that are told through the eyes of the animals in the jungle which are also done through poetry. The story itself is about the people who were recruited to help dig the Panama Canal. The darker the skin, the less they were paid. This is a heartbreaking story for many reasons, and I learned a lot about this specific point in history in the very early 1900s. I think that it is really important that this book was written because it is a piece of history that is often either forgotten or told in a way that exemplifies how great mankind was to be able to build a canal so large. The details of the racism and the deaths and sicknesses are usually swept under the rug. I love that the author included the viewpoint of the animals and the trees as well because it did impact the environment. This piece of the story made it very applicable to today because there are still times when we choose to destroy pieces of the environment in order to build things for ourselves. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry, environmental issues, history, or learning a little about new cultures. This book could be read probably in 4th or 5th grade through middle school. It is a quick read, but there are many poetic elements that could be discussed further with students.
Profile Image for Penny Ramirez.
1,717 reviews26 followers
December 13, 2017
This was another free-verse book that I chose for the Reading Without Walls challenge at the library where I work. I find I'm enjoying the format!

This book was very moving on many levels. I've always been fascinated by the Panama Canal, and visiting it has been on my wish list for a long time. Previous works I've read have focused on the engineering feats (and disasters) that allowed the canal to be constructed. This book focused on the human tragedy of the Caribbean workers who were tricked into signing contracts, and then basically enslaved, to dig the canal. Many died of disease and from mudslides and other workplace accidents. There was what amounted to an apartheid system put in place - the color of your skin determined your pay, housing, and what food you could access. The Silver People of the title were the lowest paid and hardest worked.

In alternating chapters, the rainforest and its inhabitants were also featured as primary characters. Interesting, and heartbreaking, and yet, also somehow hopeful that nature will survive and ultimately prevail.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
5,070 reviews183 followers
April 15, 2014
This is another book that I picked up for my nephews as I thought it would be a good one that would help them get familiar with the Panama Canal.

I have never read any book by this author before, so I don't know if all of her books are written this way but I really had a pleasurable time reading this one. The book was not just spilt in long chapters but into sections. There were the voices of the people building the canal and then there were the voices from the forest. The animals who's home was being destroyed. I loved them all. Although reading the voices of the animals was fun and entertaining. Each pages was a quick snippet of a voice. It kind of like poetry. Also, there were no extremely big words that my nephews would not be able to pronounce and therefore, they would be able to read this book on their own. This book is a creative way to teach children about the Panama Canal. I will check out more books by this author.
Profile Image for Doris Sander.
66 reviews73 followers
May 13, 2022
This was such a good book. I am so disturbed by what we find acceptable in the name of progress.
October 17, 2018
Silver People is a verse novel about the building of the Panama Canal. I was intrigued in this book, as I thought it was an interesting writing style choice and I’m also up for verse novels.

This book is #ownvoices for Cuban representation.

Check out my book blog for more book reviews and other bookish posts!


I was very surprised and excited at the beginning, when I realised that the perspectives were not all human perspectives, but some of them were nature perspectives. For example, the howler monkeys, the glass frogs, a monkey-eating eagle, and the trees all have perspective. However, I was disappointed by these nature perspectives. I felt that they were too one-dimensional and painted nature as though it was only capable of one thought.

The human perspectives were fascinating. We are introduced to several different people, from different classes, and of different ethnicities. As far as I remember, there is only one perspective told by a woman. The different perspectives showed how people from the various communities impacted by the building of the Panama Canal felt about it. The verses show how white people exoticise Panama, and describes how the different people living in Panama feel about this. It also portrays feminism, and touches on intersectionality and white feminism.

I did not know much about the building of the Panama Canal. For example, I had no idea that the people were paid differently according to their ethnicity. I also did not know anything about the working conditions of those workers. It was also very interesting to read about how the land changed due to the canal.


I enjoyed the human perspectives of Silver People, but I did not enjoy the nature perspectives at all. I’m not a huge fan of the book.
Profile Image for Linda .
3,659 reviews40 followers
April 4, 2014
It’s a pleasure to read great verse novels, filled with strong voices and images. Sharing important stories in beautiful words of poetry grabs me every time. I sink into the story, admiring the ability of those who are able to tell stories that sing. And this book sings an important story beautifully.
I’ve looked forward to this book since I first heard about it. I read about the amazing feat of the building of the Panama Canal in a brief book by David McCullough a long time ago. Then last week, I read a children’s non-fiction book in order to gain some additional background of the construction, knowing the book was about to be published. I realize I cannot know the story of every part of history, but when I supported my students’ research, I pressed them to ask, as I do, “what is the ‘other’ story?” the one that hasn’t been told. Do you remember the radio pieces by Paul Harvey? And now, in my mind, the Canal was a feat like few others, but because of Margarita’s book, I know the “rest of the story”.
The canal was completed one hundred years ago, but unfortunately for those who might have wished a huge celebration, it was also August, 1914, and the beginning of World War I. Margarita Engle has chosen to tell the story from the voices of a few people, some forest creatures, and briefly, the voices of power.
It’s a book filled with pain, yet even in the sadness and devastating conditions of hard work and disease, there is hope and happiness in friendship and in the forest’s beauty. Thanks to Margarita, she’s given us the rest of the story.
Profile Image for Amanda (abookishinvasion).
110 reviews6 followers
February 1, 2017
Actual Rating: 4.5
At least none that will make any sort of sense.
Here are my feelings.

I've read very few books written in verse (WHY!?) and I've realized how much I love it. I love the way characters can be truly brought to life through poetry. The way it can be read with a flow that prose lacks. Being able to read this in verse brought a certain excitement and fun to this book. It took me to a place I've never been and shown me things I've never seen and did it with flawless grace and rhythm.
Did that make sense? Probably not.
The main characters were fictional, though the story itself was rooted in history and some of its minor characters are historical figures. I use the word fictional for the MC's very lightly because they FELT REAL. Margarita Engle put time into this work, she put in the research, the effort...These characters were rooted in reality despite being imaginary.
This book tells the story of the Panama Canal that they don't teach you in history class (at least none I've ever taken and I've taken quite a few). I didn't know who the Silver People were. I'm disgusted by that fact. Disgusted that we can't own up to this. We can't acknowledge the people who ACTUALLY did the work. Who ACTUALLY risked their lives. Instead we turn to the white people who came up with the idea for it, but never actually faced the dangers.
I have so many feelings right now...
Profile Image for Kathy Whitmore.
79 reviews1 follower
September 11, 2017
This is a book I'll want to read more than once. Halfway through I was not certain I liked it at all, even though I trust Engle to write beautiful and IMPORTANT poetic novels. By the end I was mesmerized, angry, more knowledgeable, full of questions, and astounded by Engle's talents. This is a book that could spark important inquiry into the Panama Canal, apartheid, injustice, and the rain forest.
Profile Image for TAN.
Author 2 books24 followers
July 5, 2017
A verse novel chock full of exploitation, racism and more. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Matthew Harris.
14 reviews
October 15, 2017
This book was very interesting and uses servers Literary techniques that really help tell the story of the “Silver People”. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
Profile Image for Ogechukwu.
20 reviews
October 16, 2017
I am not a big fan of poems, but I really enjoyed this book. I especially liked the parts told in the pers0ective of the different animals in the rainforest.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
596 reviews24 followers
March 16, 2021
"I prefer the dangers of wilderness. / Crocodiles, serpents, and jaguars / are not nearly as frightening / as angry men."

This is my second book I've read by Margarita Engle. I am absolutely in love with her voice and her approach to crafting books like this. Engle gives voices to the underrepresented figures and groups throughout history. Although her works are fiction inspired by real events and figures, she takes such care in research that every book of hers is a learning experience.

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal was an excellent book that shed light on what life was like for the immigrant laborers that built the Panama canal. Far too often, the United States likes to ride the backs of minorities and then claim their work as their own, with no recognition for the work those people contributed. This book also showcases Canal Zone apartheid, and how different races were segregated throughout the construction of the canal. Not only were Cuban and Jamaican immigrants given the worst and hardest jobs, they were paid practically nothing and had horrible living arrangements and medical facilities compared to the American contract-laborers.

I also love how Margarita Engle gave voice to the plants and animals of the forests that were destroyed during the process of the Panama Canal construction. Every other chapter was told from the perspective of trees and animals which made for a very unique reading experience. As a biologist, it was great to see the native life of the country have a voice too. The racial injustices of this era were atrocious, but the loss of forest life was substantial too.

Overall, this was just a fantastic book and I think I will be reflecting on it for years to come.
Profile Image for Abi.
147 reviews
August 8, 2020
This book is a must read! I had never given a single thought to the Panama Canal. Sure, it was mentioned in school, but nobody taught me about the injustice, the segregation, or chaos involved in making the canal.

Even when I look it up, the first thing that comes up is the splendid machines they used.

How important it is to learn about the injustice that non-white people (or even white but from the “wrong” country) have had to go through in the past and even today. This book calls you to learn, and so it is a must read for everyone.

My only complain is that we didn’t get even a poem from the natives. They are mentioned towards the end by Henry, but if they were also affected shouldn’t they have a voice too? We got the animals, the trees, a Jamaican boy, a Cuban guy, a local girl whose origin is unknown, a Puerto Rican from the US, and all these historical figures...but no voices from the natives. That is my only complain.

Overall, this is a great read and I recommend if you like historical fiction, books in verse, and books that tackle themes like racism and environmental issues.
Profile Image for Samantha Matherne.
524 reviews53 followers
September 25, 2022
A very descriptive story of the glossed-over history of the Panama Canal's construction. Schools teach about the amazing feat to connect the two oceans, but often left out are the thousands who perished during the TWO construction attempts due to malaria, yellow fever, landslides, and likely more. Mateo, Anita, Henry, and Augusto each shed light on a different piece of human injustice that occurred during all this. I really appreciate this book and think it would work well to teach teens today about what really happened.
Profile Image for Joanna Marple.
Author 1 book47 followers
January 15, 2014

SILVER PEOPLE looks at the creation of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, and in particular at the fictitious lives of Mateo, a young Cuban laborer, and his friends. The setting is factual. The story is narrated in verse from multiple points of view, including historical figures such as George Goethals, Jackson Smith and Theodore Roosevelt. Engle states that ‘poems in the voices of historical figures are based on their own documented statements’. Mateo flees to Panama away from an abusive father. He is an artistic young Cuban man in his mid teens, trying to make sense of this new brutal life far from his native island. In these inhuman conditions, he makes friends with other laborers, a local girl abandoned in the forest and adopted by an old Cuban healer, and a Puerto Rican, an honorary pale-skinned American, with a heart of gold, geological expertise and a passion for wildlife and art. Henry, first foe then friend of Mateo’s, is a Jamaican worker, and he and Mateo teach each other their mother tongues in this melting pot of cultures. The different characters and cultures are beautifully etched for the reader through a verse infused with historical, cultural weight and beauty. Margarita includes one of the local tribes, one member of which falls in love and marries Henry.

The lyrical points of view from nun-human forest dwellers remind me, in a good way, of this technique used by Leslea Newman’s OCTOBER MOURNING. The forest, and not just the workers, is subject to exploitation during the ten+ years of digging, and we listen to the howl of the howler monkeys (who speak in ALL CAPS) and the lamenting voices of trees, sloths, frogs and more, adding a very unique call to this story.

The Silver people are the darker skinned imported laborers, mainly from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica (and some olive skinned Mediterraneans). These workers were paid just a few silver coins for their backbreaking work. The paler skinned European and U.S. workers were paid in gold. Engle contrasts and compares gold and silver, light and dark, through the novel, as part of her exposé of the racist and exploitive nature of the Panama Canal project on this region and these people, local and immigrant.

The poems from well known historical American figures such as John Stevens, Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal etc. reveal the scathing arrogance to which Mateo and the other workers were subjected.

If I could hire only white Americans, I would, but they don’t want shovel jobs and they won’t work for silver.

Dark islanders are my only choice…

The story is really about the exploited refusing their victim label and making seeing/creating beauty in the midst of the ugly side of globalization!

Why I like this book:

This is a magical tribute, exactly a century later, to the lives of those unsung heroes who manually dug this Canal of miracles, global power and destruction. I am a big fan of poetic prose and know they are a challenging form. Historical fiction verse novels are rare, and I believe Engle manages a tremendous balance between trueness to the form and to the time period. I get every sense that this is a very well researched novel.

Indigenous values are imparted through the importance of the forest and plant life etc The contrast between those that embrace other cultures and those that segregate and exalt themselves over other cultures is clear. Over a hundred nationalities were involved in making the canal and I love how Engle weaves many into this story. I imagine it is also Engle’s botanist background which urged her to add the forest voices to speak their concern as their habitat was being threatened. As an ecologically-minded reader I welcomed this unique perspective.

This is a book focused on an event in history about which I was sorely ignorant, and what a splendid way for me to resolve some of that ignorance. Thought the subject-matter is weighty, the poetic prose propels the story forward with ease. I am sure this will find a home on school, library and personal shelves. I hope that the reading of this story will restore some of the honor due to the half a million Caribbeans that worked in Panama from 1850 to 1914 amidst poverty, disease and the constant danger of landslides. Thousands lost their lives and many did not return to their homelands. These poems give voices to the voiceless and to the incredible engineering feat of the beginning of last century. Engle achieves both the big picture of this phenomenal project as well as the intimate details of the lives of some of canal’s creators. The forest and the trees speak!

I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Erikka.
1,790 reviews
October 11, 2019
The Panama canal was a labor intensive and extremely racist undertaking. This book puts the story back into the hands of the poor people of color who did the actual work on creating such a fantastic architectural marvel. Mateo and Anita are great characters who really draw attention to the beauty of Panama. This was a pretty fun historical glimpse into an undervalued time period.
Profile Image for Amanda Herman.
48 reviews1 follower
November 24, 2016
I found many things about this novel interesting. First, I enjoyed the poetic verse that it was written in. It made the story more whimsical and easy to read. The use of similes, such as “life seems as changeable as a clearwing butterfuly that appears green when it rests on a leaf, brown on a twig, or blue in a cloudless sky” (130), provides a wealth of imagery to the reader. I also enjoyed how the story was told from so many different perspectives. Even though this was not a long novel, the reader is able to get a real sense of each character because of wealth of detail woven by the author. Even the animals in the forest were given a voice to help set the scene for what was going on in Panama at this time.
Another interesting aspect of the story is workers system of payment, living conditions, and social segregation. Each worker is separated by culture and then classified by their skin color (even though this system is very flawed, as we learn through the main character, Mateo). Brown skinned and black skinned workers are paid silver while light skinned American and European workers are paid in gold. There is also a vast difference between the house, hospitals, and meals given to individual based on their skin color. Eventually, Cuban Mateo and his Jamaican friend Henry run away from this prejudiced system and go to live in the jungle. They must be fearful of their lives because they are breaking their contracts but go on to marry girls who live in the forest and wind up staying.
The character of Anita and her inability to fit into a “box” on the census is an interesting addition to the characters in the story. While she at first seems to struggle with not knowing her heritage, she in the end is grateful for not being able to be classified. I think that many people may not be aware of not only how workers were treated or how they were recruited to work on the Panama Canal but also how these varying cultures stayed in Panama and led to the diversity of the community there. I enjoyed the addition at the end of the story of both the Epilogue which describes what happens after the canal is built and also the historical note that describes how this story is based on historical events. It is a story that I was not familiar with and I am glad it is one that can be told to readers in such an engaging manner.
Profile Image for Ed.
227 reviews12 followers
November 30, 2013
Engle, M. (2014). Silver people: Voices from the Panama Canal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-0-544-10941-4. (Hardcover); $17.99.

Poetry by itself is hard enough. Verse novels that explore history and remain poetry are few and far between. Don’t let the fact that these novels read quickly fool you into thinking that they are any less rigorous than a novel dealing with the same history.

In Silver People, we take a look at the creation of the Panama Canal. Silver people are the darker skinned, usually Jamaican, workers that were paid in silver for their labor. Lighter skinned European and U.S. workers were paid in gold. Gold and silver contrasts and comparisons exist throughout Engle’s poems, exposing the racist and exploitive management of the Panama Canal project. Engle often employs various voices in her books and this one is no exception. Unique to this book, however, is the voice of the Forest and the various inhabitants. We hear from Howler Monkeys (who, of course, speak in ALL CAPS). We hear from Trees and various other forest dwellers. Much of the story is told from a Cuban, Mateo’s point of view. Mateo runs to Panama, fleeing his father’s “furious fists.” Poems from George W. Goethals and Jackson Smith show the contempt and the arrogance with which the workers were subjected. Thousands of people, mostly Silver People, died in the creation of the canal. Disease and landslide were constant companions. Readers may think of this venture strictly in terms of the earth moving machines that ate through the country. Engle’s book serves as both a memorial to the people, the country, and the workers (from over 100 countries) who built the canal. It is also a reminder that real people built the canal. Mateo yearns to be an artist, he finds Anita, he becomes friends with Henry and learns to speak English, he teaches Henry to speak Spanish, he learns about plant and animal life from Anita. He is one of many PEOPLE who worked on the canal. This is a beautiful book that will find a great home in middle school and elementary libraries; high school English teachers and history teachers should be able to find plenty of ways to use this one in their classrooms.
Profile Image for Sharon Marchingo.
51 reviews3 followers
July 1, 2014
Silver People is a clever verse novel that reminds me why I love reading. This book transports the reader back 100 years to the building of the Panama Canal, a major engineering feat that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project was driven by American President, Theodore Roosevelt and vastly improved shipping between the continents, however, there was a darker side to this story and this is what beautifully written book reveals. The story is told principally through the voice of two Caribbean workers, Henry and Mateo and young indigenous girl, Anita. The reader also hears the voices of the trees, the howler monkeys, the butterflies, the bats, the macaws and the frogs who express the impact of this project on the fragile environment. Wealthy American women visit the project and insist upon have freshly killed colourful birds adorn their hats, with no regard to the impact upon the population of the wildlife. Engle digs deeply into the hardships faced by the workers especially the Caribbean ‘Silver’ workers who were paid in silver unlike their American cousins who were paid in ‘Gold’. The book delves into prejudice and exploitation and the disrespect for those who toiled long and hard to make this project a reality. The treatment of the Caribbean islanders who worked in Panama resembled very much South Africa’s apartheid system, where not only the workers were paid differently but they were segregated in their housing, food and treatment in hospitals. This is a wonderful read, it transports readers to a time and place that they may not have been aware of and gives further insights into the human spirit, the power of love and friendship and the ill treatment of one group towards another. It is beautifully and succinctly written and skips along poetically as the story is told in the jungles of Panama.
Profile Image for Barbara.
13k reviews268 followers
February 19, 2016
Like many schoolchildren, my classmates and I briefly studied the building of the Panama Canal, but only from the perspective of the United States and as a great feat of engineering. Little did I realize the human or environmental cost of this canal. As she does so skillfully in all her books, Margarita Engle tells the canal's story through multiple voices, including those of the trees and howler monkeys who will suffer devastating losses to their species and to their habitat. Readers will also learn about how men and women were recruited to work on the project, and the segregation that occurred because of skin colors and ethnicities. The story focuses on fourteen-year-old Mateo from Cuba who joins the workers to escape poverty and an abusive home life, but it also introduces readers to Anita who sells herbs for a living, to Augusto who studies and paints the local plants and animals. Then, too, readers will meet some of the white men responsible for unreasonable expectations for their crew, including engineers John Stevens George Goethals who seem intent on waging a way against the land in their efforts to build that canal. While simultaneously celebrating the beauty of the area and the almost intractable nature of the land, this novel in verse also describes vividly the unthinkable conditions under which the laborers worked as well as their living conditions, leaving them susceptible to malaria. On the one hundredth anniversary of the canal's completion, this novel in verse is a perfect way to revisit history, this time from a different, more honest and humane perspective. Once again, Margarita Engle scores by filling her relating of history with individuals. Although readers only catch glimpses of them, they are still, somehow, memorable.
Profile Image for Marina Minina.
33 reviews
November 7, 2016
The book Silver people is a novel in verse based on a real historical fact, the creation of Panama Canal, and set in factual situations as the author told at the end of the book. Besides, “poem in the voice of historical figures” such as John Stevens, Theodore Roosevelt, George Goethals, Jackson Smith, Gertrude Beeks, and Harry Frank. I would like to use historical fiction books in my classroom because they are very informative and believable as they are about a real life. Through this book children would learn interesting facts and understand better the past and how it influences the world/the country nowadays. Concerning the use of Spanish I haven’t noticed redundancy of Spanish words and their translation in Silver People. Every Spanish word is clear to me as the one who doesn’t speak Spanish. For example, “Barriga llena, corazón content” and right after it there is translation “Full belly, happy heart”, “americano” or “cubano boy” – there is no translation of the words americano or cubano boy as they are comprehensible to both monolingual or bilingual students (p.6, p.17). I also like how learning English words by Mateo is integrated into text –
Anarchy is their favorite word.
It means no government, no rules.
It means: Cause trouble.
Create chaos.
Dig a deep canal,
And then explode it.
Destroy our own work,
Just to defeat the rich men
Who pay us. (p.31)

Anarchy is a complicated word for children and Margarita Engle found a good and simple way to explain children difficult things.
Besides, I think her book motivates students to learn more about Latin cultures. “Don’t they understand that Latin America has many countries” (p.98). The book would be interesting for both monolingual and bilingual students.
Profile Image for Mark Taylor.
221 reviews10 followers
July 28, 2017
The Panama Canal was one of the largest construction projects in the world. Originally begun by the French government, and then finished by the United States in 1914, the Canal cost some $375 million dollars, and many human lives. More than 5,000 workers died during the U.S. phase of construction, in addition to 22,000 workers who died during the French attempt. Margarita Engle’s 2014 novel Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, tells the story of the building of the Canal. Written in verse, it focuses on Mateo, a 14-year-old boy from Cuba who takes a job building the canal in order to escape an abusive father, Henry, who is from Jamaica, and Anita, a native Panamanian girl who sells herbs and medicines.

The title Silver People comes from the racial stratification among those workers hired to build the Canal. White workers and engineers from the United States were paid in gold, while darker-skinned workers from the Caribbean countries were paid in silver. Workers were also housed in different places according to their skin color. Engle paints a vivid picture of the racial segregation among the workers, and the resentment that it brought.

Engle does an excellent job of capturing the voices of the different characters, and she even has sections of the book that are narrated by the trees, or by howler monkeys in the rainforest jungle. It’s an interesting technique that adds to the picture of a landscape being radically transformed in the service of commerce.

Silver People is written for young adults, and I would recommend it to anyone, youth or adult, who is interested in learning more about the construction of the Panama Canal.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
2,070 reviews24 followers
April 11, 2014
An amazing piece of historical fiction in verse form, Silver People portrays the construction of the Panama Canal from the viewpoints of workers, geologists, project leaders, and residents of Panama (humans, animals, and even trees). The text is a heartbreaking tale of mistreatment, loss of habitat, and sickness - but also shows friendship, kindness, and first love. I'm amazed at the way each character's voice rings true, from the howler monkeys to the native girl who sells herbs, each is distinctive and recognizable. Here is a brief description of the forest from one of the workers as he arrives:

Some of the rain-shiny leaves
are shaped like green hands,
others like hearts, livers, or kidneys,
making the whole forest seem
like one enormous,
magical creature
with an endless body
and a fiery mind.

The author includes historically accurate details such as the anarchists who were part of the work crew (but planned to blow up the canal), or the practice of paying white Americans in gold, while the darker skinned workers only received silver for their wages. This would be excellent to use with units on America as a world power, segregation and discrimination, threats to tropical habitats, and other themes that weave through the poems. Language arts teachers can take advantage of the multiple points of view and teach lessons on perspective. The whole book is a job well done, whether you like poetry or historical fiction.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Laura.
52 reviews
September 21, 2019
This book is a mix of poetic prose and historical fiction telling the account of what I consider the US' 20th century version of slavery. I especially enjoyed the narratives from the animals and trees of Panama's tropical rain forest. Great book to include in a MG History/ SS curriculum.
523 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2015
I had a vague notion of the difficulties encountered by those who actually dug and built the Panama Canal--I didn't understand who those people were or how they were treated. I never gave any thought to the natives who were displaced. And I certainly never thought about the extreme disturbance to the ecosystem. This book brought all that to my attention. I found the book to be both interesting and informative. It left me wanting to know more about this.

My problem with the book is the style in which it is written. It is another of those "novels in verse." Maybe my standard is off-kilter. When I look at books written this way, I ask myself "Why?". Why is this the best way to tell this story? What does the form add to the content? What poetry conventions are used to enhance the plot or character development. Could this story have been told equally as well in a standard prose format. In the case of this book, I didn't find a great deal that made me think poetry was necessarily the best choice. While I did find good use of similes and repetition, I didn't really find a great deal of other poetry conventions. When I read parts of the story out loud, it read as prose. That is why my rating is as low as it is.

It is a good book, and I think intermediate and middle school readers might enjoy it very much. They certainly can learn from it and it would be a good intro to a variety of topics.
(16-17: I-1, II-2, III-0)
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