Cindy Benabderrahman's Reviews > The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
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's review
Apr 03, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry
Recommended for: everyone who appreciates beauty in humanity
Read in March, 2009

For a long time, I thought that the reason young people hate poetry is because it's presented to them as such a lowbrow thing to start with, and by the time they're in junior high or high school, they either have four spiral notebooks full of the deep dark abyss of their souls, or they discount it altogether, opting for prose books (hopefully the Lois Lowry kind or the classics rather than the Stephenie Meyer kind, but I'm getting way off the subject).

When I opened this book, I was relieved. Someone out there decided that enough was enough, and wrote a collection that's readable for children (I think I would give this book to a child as young as fourth grade if he or she was an avid reader), but actually has poetic and literary merits.

I'll have more to say about this later, but right now I'm just glad to have found this one.

A novel told in beautiful free verse, this is the story of Rosa, a slave healer, who tells us the story of her experience during revolutionary times in Cuba. We witness, in her words, her struggles through learning to be a healer, the Ten Years War, The Little War, and The War of Independence. This is the story of struggle and survival, the story of hiding and the story of waiting and of hoping, but ultimately the story of healing. The brief introduction, timeline, and author’s note only add to the gravity of the story of this slave girl who has a gift for healing the rebel soldiers, and even the enemy. This is the story of the stark, brilliant humanity of a little girl whose spirit shines, even through the veil of the death and misery around her. She says she “can’t understand / why dark northern soldiers / and light ones / are separated / into different brigades.” She describes loss, a “strange victory” and a peace that didn’t end up being “the paradise / [she:] imagined” and one can hardly help but to get caught up in the tangle of words and wisdom that spill from the pages.

Like Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, this historical novel is frighteningly engrossing. Engle has the gift of the storyteller, and she uses it well here. The novel is poignant and beautiful, with a quiet, sublime quality. The poetry is contemporary and breathtaking, and it feels easy and light, even though the subjects are mostly dark and grim. Rosa and her story are illustrated through such sensual language that we fall in love with the landscape of a Cuba where even the wind “is an evil wind.” There is bare honesty here, and truth. It is a raw story, without stereotypical elements, and the commentary—that freedom is not something that can be won, and that nothing of value comes without struggle—rings clear and loud, even though the delivery is sometimes subtle and sometimes shocking. This is a book for young and old, one that belongs in every classroom and library, and one that is useful across curriculums and cultures. Bravo.


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