Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5
The Surrender Tree tells the story of Cuba’s struggles for freedom using poetry as a medium.
Rosa grows up a slave, trained in healing using plant-based folk remedies. She gains a reputation for her skills; she is even called upon to work on the white slave catcher’s son. Eventually, Rosa chooses to run away and join one of the runaway slave communities hidden deep in the forest.
There, she and her husband participate in several struggles for freedom. Rosa establishes hospitals and trains numerous assistants. Despite the cruelty visited upon the Cuban revolutionaries by the Spanish army, including imprisonment of all non-combatants in internment camps, Rosa steadfastly treats whoever shows up at her doorstep. Her compassion results in numerous Spanish troops switching sides in the conflict.
Throughout all of this, the slave catcher who Rosa once saved, now known by the moniker Lieutenant Death, has made catching her his mission. Their strangely intertwined lives intersect several times, but he never succeeds in his mission.
Margarita Engle, the author, wrote an eloquent, moving story, which captures several important points in Cuban history. Rosa, her husband, and a girl who escapes the internment camps after her entire family dies there are sympathetic narrators. Despite being “rebels”, Rosa’s realism, humanity, and war-weariness shine through the narrative, creating a more complex picture of conflict than merely “must get the bad guys/accomplish our goals”. The Surrender Tree also examines U.S. involvement in the conflict, basically betraying the Cubans who thought they had come to help.
I highly recommend this selection to those who enjoy narratives written in verse, as well as those who are interested in history. The reading goes quickly and the language usage is impeccable. It is probably of most interest to middle and high schoolers. It’s within the capable of younger readers, but should be read with an adult to help contextualize slavery and war.