Though Cuba is so close to us here in the United States, many people know very little about Cuban history. Though hardly a complete history, The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle offers a glimpse into 19th century Cuba.
At first, a book of poetry about Cuba wouldn’t seem to have a lot of teen appeal. But the simple yet beautiful language, combined with the ruthless violence of the slave hunters and the magical realism feel of Rosa’s healing, brings an opening to introducing this time period to a high school student.
The story is told through the voice of several characters. Rosa is our main character, but a boy nicknamed Lieutenant Death gives voice to the slave hunters. Rosa begins as a young girl, but as she ages, she marries Jos, who then helps her in the healing arts, curing both rebels and the Spanish. In learning of this unfamiliar history, students should easily be able to draw parallels between America’s own slave past, as well as the Native American repatriation.
Though none of the poems are lengthy, here is a particularly brief one of Rosa’s that captures the spare language:
This is how you clean a wound:
Clean the flesh.
Sew the skin.
Pray for the soul.
An educator’s guide for The Surrender Tree.