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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Silver People:Voices From the Panama Canal, written by Margarita Engle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"The tourists ask for whole collections
of rare butterflies for their children -
wild butterflies, caught and pinned,
not just a few drifting wings,
like the ones I find after migrations.
And they want skins. Jaguar. Puma. Snake.
And crocodile teeth, peccary tusks,
fossil shark teeth from the Serpent Cut.
Anything sharp, so they can pretend
they know danger.

No! She does not yet disappoint on any level. I remain in awe of Margarita Engle's unerring research and her beautifully poetic and flawless ability to tell stories that matter to her...and to make them matter to us!

In her newest novel in verse, she uses an impressive collection of voices to tell the story of the construction of the Panama Canal. The story begins with Mateo, from the island of Cuba. He has good reason to think that finding work anywhere will provide a better life than the one he is living:

"I am not an ordinary war orphan.
Papi is alive, but the family part
of his mind
is deeply wounded.
He drinks so much rum
that he believes I am
his enemy - a Spaniard
from the country
that lost the war
and left so many
of its soldiers
I'm only fourteen, but I'm strong
for a starving boy."

A recruiter promises the world to those who have nothing, and want anything. Mateo convinces him with lies to take a chance on a too young boy. Might it be a mistake?

"Hunger at sea for three days
feels like a knife in the flesh -
twisted blade, rusty metal,
the piercing tip of a long
called regret."

I wanted to take him in my arms and protect him from what is yet to come.

There are recurring voices from the forest: the howler monkeys, glass frogs, blue morpho butterfly, trees, eagle, sloth, tree viper. Each is affected by the workers who come to cut a path through their home, with little concern for the balance of nature and the damage being done. We also meet Anita, a young girl who gathers herbs from the rain forest and Henry, a Jamaican worker who has no status among the workers because of the color of his skin and who faces death and degradation each and every day:

"We also watch the medium-dark
Spanish men, relaxing as they sit
on their train tracks, grinning
as if they know secrets.

We have no place to sit. Not even
a stool. So we stand, plates in hand,
and undignified."

Augusto is a Puerto Rican, a geologist who sees promise in Mateo and offers him some reprieve (on Sundays) from the dreary, backbreaking work that he has promised to do. Through his connections with these people, Mateo finds a place in his new 'home', and we can leave him knowing that he will be all right.

Voices of historical figures, including Theodore Roosevelt, reflect some of the thinking of those in charge of this mammoth undertaking. Creating lovely language and memorable characters is what Margarita Engle does so well. Here, she makes an important page in history come to life for her readers. There is so much to learn about the pervasive racism, danger, wage discrepancies, conditions, ecology and character.

In an interview with Robyn Hood Block (, Ms. Engle had this to say about the choices she makes in writing verse novels:

"The two things I sacrifice in exchange for using the verse novel form's magic are:

1. dialogue---When I encounter dialogue in a verse novel, it usually feels disorienting, so I search for other ways to have characters communicate.
2. detail---I feel the need to research like a maniac, and then omit most of what I have learned. This forces me to only include those aspects of history that seem most important to me. In other words, it forces me to remain constantly aware of what I am really trying to say to young readers.

Powerful words to add to the power of the words you will enjoy when you read this moving account of an historical event.

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