To Cuba, With Love: The Surrender Tree

A vibrant novel of war and hope

Every once in awhile, I just want to read something that is beautiful. I don’t need plot, character, suspense, or action; I just want beautiful words and beautiful imagery. I was in this kind of mood when I took home the mulit-award winning The Surrender Tree by Cuban-American poet Margarita Engle.

This book is told through the perspectives of various characters living in the jungles of Cuba between 1850 and 1899. Through the eyes of a nurse, her husband, a slave hunter, and a young orphan, Margarita Engle is able to create a portrait of a county torn by slavery, colonialism, rebellion, and war. Fiction is such a wonderful way to approach history, allowing the reader to connect with characters and experience history along with them. Engle goes a step further, including an historical note, a chronology, and a list of references to shed more light on the events and people touched on in her luminous novel. For the most part her characters are based on historical figures, though she admits to taking liberties imagining their daily life and inner most thoughts and feelings.

Engle’s depiction of a particularly turbulent period in Cuban history is researched and seeded with information, but what is most effective about the novel is her writing style. The subtitle of this book is Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, refering to the structure of the novel, which is written as a series of poems. I would go a little further and call this a verse novel, meaning that there is an overarching plot or narrative that is told through a series of free verse poems.

The verse novel is one of my favourite literary forms. It is a niche that has flourished in children’s literature, though it is markedly absent in the adult market. Reluctant and avid readers alike enjoy and clamor for this form. It is easy, fluid reading that has a structure that invites thought and reflection. Well written verse novels pack an emotional punch that prose novels sometimes lack. I could go on (and did, at great length in my MA thesis) but will let you pick one up and discover the joy of the verse novel yourself. The Surrender Tree is a great one to start with.

There is a beautiful paperback edition including both the English and Spanish Translations of the novel in one book published by Square Fish, an imprint of Macmillan.

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