Poetry for Children: The Surrender Tree

3 Jul


Engle, Margarita. The surrender tree: poems of Cuba’s struggle for freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008.



This verse novel follows the stories of Rosa, Jose, Sylvia and others as they live through the tumultuous struggle for Cuba’s freedom.  Three wars devastated the country, burning towns and plantations, separating families and causing widespread death and disease.  From slavery, to escape; from freedom to concentration camps; the characters in this novel share their journey in a historically accurate, incredibly potent portrait of life in Cuba from 1810 to 1899.


Margarita Engle has created an exceedingly powerful yet incredibly elegant memoir to her grandparents and those that lived through the Cuban wars in this verse novel.  “Lieutenant Death’s” passages are eerily placed throughout the book, giving depth to the hatred of slaves and rebels by the Spanish Army.  Of slaves he says:

“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.”

“a chopped, caged spirit cannot fly away

to a better place.”


The book primarily features Rosa, a medicine woman that learned from the elders how to cure injury and illness with flowers and herbs.  We begin with Rosa as a child, referred to as “the little witch” by her owners.  Her innocence shines as a young girl:

“Hatred must be

a hard thing to learn.”


Rosa grows into a legendary nurse- “Rosa la Bayamesa,” the cave nurse from Bayamo. She and her husband Jose run secret hospitals in the jungles and caves of Cuba.  Ms. Engle creates a stunning portrait of life on the run, as Rosa becomes a target of the Spanish army.  The number of sick and wounded grows astronomically as Rosa states beautifully:

“I look around, and realize

that she came through the roof

because the door was too crowded

with families weeping, rebels moaning,

women begging…


This war is a serpent,

Growing, stretching….”

Besides Rosa, the book offers narratives and perspectives from Sylvia, a young orphaned girl that will likely follow in the footsteps of Rosa and the medicine women before her.  This book is extremely poignant and creates an emotional glimpse into the casualties of war.



BOOKLIST started review:  “Engle writes her new book in clear, short lines of stirring free verse. Caught by the compelling narrative voices, many readers will want to find out more.”

HORN BOOK: “A powerful narrative in free verse . . . haunting.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba’s troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments

KIRKUS REVIEWS: “Young readers will come away inspired by these portraits of courageous ordinary people.”

VOYA: “The poems are short but incredibly evocative.”



*can be connected to social studies lessons covering slavery, war, oppression and the use of concentration camps


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