Last week for Nonfiction Monday, we shared Margarita Engle’s The Firefly Letters. Today, we share another one of her novel-in-verse: The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.
I find her voice so authentic and oh-so-perfect for our bimonthly theme on poetics and verse and also for Nonfiction Monday which is hosted this week by Diane Chen from Practically Paradise.
Various Voices in Verse. In this multi-award winning book by Margarita Engle, we hear a variety of voices as we witness Cuba’s struggle for independence. Foremost is the voice of an actual historical figure in Cuba, Rosario Castellanos Castellanos, known as Rosa la Bayamesa.
There is also the voice of her husband Jose Francisco Varona; a slavehunter known as Lieutenant Death (Teniente Muerte); Captain-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, Marquis of Tenerife, Empire of Spain; and a fictional character created by Engle somewhere at the end of the narrative, a runaway young girl named Silvia.
The novel is divided into five major sections from 1850 to 1899. In Part One: The Names of the Flowers (1850-51), we are introduced to the young Rosa, the Child-Witch, the Healer. We also get a glimpse of the slave-hunters, plantation owners, and how being an indentured servant would define one’s very core. We also sense a deep darkness – a shroud concealing some of the words behind the words.
Lieutenant Death … When the girl-witch heals a wounded runaway, the cimarrón is punished, and sent back to work. Even then, many run away again, or kill themselves. But then my father chops each body into four pieces, and locks each piece in a cage, and hangs the four cages on four branches of the same tree. That way, my father tells me, the other slaves will be afraid to kill themselves. He says they believe a chopped, caged spirit cannot fly away to a better place. (p. 6)
Part Two: The Ten Years’ War details Rosa’s life as a fugitive. While their freedom has been granted them by the few plantation owners who burned their fields as a symbol of their independence from Spanish rule, this was not honored by slave hunters and soldiers who continue to pursue and hunt/haunt them:
When the slavehunter brings back runaways he captures, he receives seventeen silver pesos per cimarrón, unless the runaway is dead. Four pesos is the price of an ear, shown as proof that the runaway slave died fighting, resisting capture. (p. 5)
The reader also gets a feel of how to live like a fugitive, with caves as one’s homes – conveniently serving as both places of worship and healing. One also sees how the characters are able to successfully find love amidst hatred (Rosa marrying the steadfast Jose Francisco Varona), and how to open one’s inner ear to the voices of the beasts and leaves in the forest.
Rosa We learn to live in darkness, without so many lanterns and torches, fireflies, and candles made from the wax of wild bees. We drink wild honey instead of sugarcane syrup. We are far from any farms or towns. We eat the blind lizards and ghost-fish. We know how to live with the stench of black vomit, yellow fever in its final stage …. (p. 63)
Part 3 is called The Little War (1878-80) - this is where we read the oft-quoted lines from Rosa (p. 76):
The Little War? How can there be a little war? Are some deaths smaller than others, leaving mothers who weep a little less? José is hopeful that soon there will be another chance to gain independence from Spain, and freedom for slaves, but all I see is death, always the same, always enormous, never little, no matter how many women come to help me, asking to be trained in the art of learning the names of forest flowers and the names of brave people.
Part Four marks The War of Independence between 1895-98. It is during this period that we are taken to campamentos de reconcentración - a term invented by Captain-General Valeriano Weyler to refer to reconcentration camps. A proclamation has been issued ordering all peasants to reach these camps to ensure total control of the land.
When eight days have passed, any man, woman, or child found in the countryside will be shot. (p. 84) - Captain General Valeriano Weyler
We also get introduced to the eleven year old Silvia (the fictional character in this book created by Engle’s imagination) who lost her entire family to war, famine, illness, and the many faces of human depravity – and her journeys to find Rosa la Bayamesa who, at this point in time, has now turned into a figure of hope, a voice for the oppressed, the healer whose hands know no enemies – providing leaves, salves, herbs, and soulful kindness to friend and foe alike:
This is how you heal a wound: Clean the flesh. Sew the skin. Pray for the soul. Wait. (p. 73)
Part Five is entitled The Surrender Tree and marks the omnipresence of US battleships, the uncertainties brought about by yet another flag looming over Cuba, and what the face of peace would eventually be – in contrast to the mirage they have in their minds after long years of running, fighting, and wounded bodies coming to them for help.
While I did not feel that there was a solid resolution between the parallel characters of Rosa and Teniente Muerte (Lieutenant Death) and that Silvia’s character seemed to have been added as an afterthought – the book has still managed to awaken my senses, opened my sensibilities to the distinct sounds made by nature around us – and the real presence of darkness that overshadows light on occasion.
Lines that Moved Me. Once again, Margarita has created a powerful narrative that brings a different vitality to history that it has heretofore lacked (at least for me) – she has imbued a sense of being where previously there were only historical dates, facts, and figures lost in the annals of texts hardly read by both children and adults alike. She has made Rosa’s story come alive – as well as this period in Cuba that may not be accessible to most people. Once again, I feel that deep sense of gratitude knowing that these strong, decisive, kind-hearted women leaders existed during times of anguish, darkness, and senseless hatred.
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
Rosa Gathering the green, heart-shaped leaves of sheltering herbs in a giant forest, I forget that I am grown now, with daydreams of my own, in this place where time does not seem to exist in the ordinary way, and every leaf is a heart-shaped moment of peace. (p. 25)
Here is another one:
José … The child tells me her grandmother showed her how to cure sadness by sucking the juice of an orange, while standing on a beach. Toss the peels onto a wave. Watch the sadness float away.
I shall try this ritual the next time I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness that seems like a wave that goes on and on in the shores of forever. All I need is an orange. And a beach to wash the peels away.
Parallels in History: Interwoven Cultural Ties. Perhaps one other thing that made me resonate with this book (and most of Margarita’s novels, for that matter), is that we share a similar history with my home country, the Philippines, being colonized by Spain for 300 years beginning from the early 1500s (1521 to be precise). Quite similar to Cuba, the Philippines also proclaimed its independence from Spain (after years of revolution, struggles, being indios in one’s homeland – not unlike the portrait that Margarita has painted for us) in 1898.
I was also fascinated by how Margarita began the novel with a few lines from a Cuban martyr, hero, and revered poet, José Martí:
I know the strange names Of the herbs and the flowers, And deadly betrayals, And sacred sorrows. from Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), 1891
As Rosa noted in her description of José Martí:
This new war begins with rhymes, the Simple Verses of Martí, Cuba’s most beloved poet. José Martí who leads with words not just swords. (p. 79)
I was reminded of our own National Hero, Jose Rizal, who was likewise a poet and a writer who fought the revolution and the Spanish colonizers using the “might of the pen.”
He wrote the novels Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (alternate English title is: The Reign of Greed) which incurred the wrath of the Spaniards and the prayles (Catholic priests who ruled alongside the soldiers) who imprisoned him because of his words that fanned the flames of the revolution even further during this period.
It is humbling to note that there would always be recurring parallels in our histories, regardless of which part of the world we come from. This alone made me reflect on our collective identities, our shared pains and struggles, and the tenuous threads (spoken in verses, embodied by words, lived and breathed through the winds) that weave all this together in some strange, surreal, yet startlingly-coherent pattern.
Resource Materials. I was able to find a few resources that would be helpful to most educators who may want to use this in their classrooms. Here is a very comprehensive interview done by guanabee.com with Margarita Engle on The Surrender Tree. This, on the other hand, is a downloadable pdf file from Macmillan that also contains summaries and interviews with author Margarita Engle. A reader’s guide was likewise created by graduate student Layota T. Colley which could be found in the Lee Bennett Hopkins Teaching Toolbox.
PoC Challenge Update: 56 (25)
The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008. Book borrowed from the community library.