The Surrender Tree. I really did not know much at all, but Margarita Engle's free verse novel taught me and inspired me to learn more.
Based on the lives of historical figures Rosa La Bayamesa, her husband Jose Francisco Varona, a slavehunter known as Lieutenant Death, and fictional characters, the poems detail Cuba's war-filled years between 1850 - 1899. Over the course of these 50 years, Rosa and Lieutenant Death live parallel lives: she heals escaped slaves and injured soldiers with herbs and flowers, he hunts slaves, collecting their ears and always on the lookout to kill "the little witch", as he thinks of Rosa. Their hide-and-seek takes the reader into reconcentration camps, caves, and swamps, painting a picture of life in Cuba long before the Castro era, a time we don't learn about in the United States.
Engle is a gifted writer and her use of imagery is particularly affecting. I could feel the steamy heat of the jungle and smell the ajiaco stew. Each word is carefully selected and holds the reader in its grasp:
"...My greatest fear is of being useless,
so I pierce and drain infected wounds
with the thorns of bitter orange trees,
and I treat the sores of smallbox
with the juice of boiled yams.
I use the perfumed leaves
of bay rum trees
to mask the scent
Rosa is a heroine worth studying. Engle portrays her as brave, tireless, principled, and wise. She takes her role as a nurse seriously and will treat enemy soldiers with the same care that she treats the Cubans, often causing them to convert to her cause. I hope that Cuban-American girls are learning about this powerful cultural figure because she is the strongest role model I have come across in awhile.
Towards the end of the book, a young girl named Silvia is introduced and the interplay between Rosa and Lieutenant Death wanes. I wish that their narration could have continued, although I appreciate that Silvia represents the future, a character who will carry on Rosa's ideals.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Please add it to your libraries and place it in as many hands as you can.