The Surrender Tree
Henry Holt and Co, 2008
Newbery Honor Book
Taking place over the several wars that Cuba had with Spain in order to gain independence, the story centers on Rosa, a young slave girl who is eventually freed by her master when he revolts against Spain and becomes the most renowned healer throughout Cuba. Through beautiful poetic language, the book chronicles her life and work as a natural medicinal doctor healing the wounds and sicknesses of soldiers, as well as the lives her husband Jose, a refugee child named Silvia who escapes from a Spanish prison camp, and Lieutenant Death, the son of Rosa’s former owner and a slave hunter who is bent on capturing and killing Rosa. Each of the four main characters tells the story of Cuba’s fight for freedom from their perspective in a first person narrative.
It’s not surprising that the Surrender Tree won so many awards, including a Newbery Honor. The language is beautiful, and the story itself is one that is not often told. Especially for an American audience, this text reveals a new type of Cuba that predates the Communist revolution that sparked an arms race during the Kennedy presidency. This is a Cuba much like the early America or Jamaica—a country of people who want to have their own independence, who want to live freely as one people, no slavery, all equals.
It’s interesting to see the story from so many perspectives, and I think that Engle adroitly switches through the first person narratives with ease. Often writers will struggle to create variance in the voices and speech patterns of their characters, but each of the four sounds different from each other, not only in style and rhythm, but also in their character—hopes, dreams, loves, actions, driving forces. I read it twice, and I would recommend it to all readers.
For the Classroom
This is a great text as a classroom companion since it has a rich historical context and broadens the perspective about the outside world for the readers. Through the lens of literary criticism, it addresses many of the bigger issues that often come up in literature, like gender roles, post-colonial issues, racial tensions, socialist uprisings, etc.