In The Poet Slave of Cuba, Engle’s prose like poetry tells the story of Juan Francisco Manzano. Accompanied by striking illustrations by Sean Qualls, Manzano’s story is one of pain and struggle. Once a pampered pet who was promised his freedom upon his mistress’ death, Manzano was passed along to a new, cruel mistress who treated him with such fierceness that several times I gasped aloud as I read the punishments inflicted upon him for simple “transgressions”. Even once he finally gained the freedom he was long ago promised, Manzano still struggled under the harsh treatment and censorship dealt to Cuban poets and novelists by their Spanish rulers.
The Surrender Tree recounts the story of Rosa, a former Cuban slave who becomes a nurse (using natural medicines) during the three wars for Cuban independence. She treats anyone who needs help – regardless of which side they are on. Setting up hospitals throughout the jungles and in caves, hidden from the Spanish army, Rosa risks all. She is hunted by Lieutenant Death, a slave hunter who she knew as a child. While the story is mostly told from Rosa’s point of view, there are bits of views from Lieutenant Death, Rosa’s husband, Silvia (a young girl who finds Rosa after being sent to a “reconcentration camp”), and others. As with Engle’s other books I’ve recently read, this one is told in prose style poetry.
It is hard for me to not compare the two books with one another and with other books I’ve read by Engle, as I’ve read all of them within the past month. Of the four books, The Poet Slave of Cuba was the most striking and noteworthy. I was amazed and horrified by Manzano’s life, expertly detailed through Engle’s poetry. It is a story that has stuck with me the past few weeks.
The events detailed in The Surrender Tree are interesting, and the writing is beautiful, as with Engle’s other works. However, while I would like to learn more about the wars for Cuban independence, this book was not nearly as striking as The Poet Slave of Cuba. The people, while somewhat notable, were not nearly as enthralling as I would have hoped. I was left with an overall feeling of, well, boredom.