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The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

by Margarita Engle

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It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in reconcentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her.

Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for


It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in reconcentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but she dares not go to the camps. So she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her.

Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war? Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle has created another breathtaking portrait of Cuba.

The Surrender Tree is a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, the winner of the 2009 Pura Belpre Medal for Narrative and the 2009 Bank Street - Claudia Lewis Award, and a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Haley Messenger
It is 1896 in a dark, wet cave in Cuba with wounded refugees and rebels hoping to be healed by the mysterious girl-witch, Rosa. Cuba and their people have suffered through three wars, reconcentration camps, and severe health issues including the plague and yellow fever. However, Rosa has a different story than what is seen on the surface. In blank verse, non-fictional characters, Rosa, her husband, Jose, and the malicious Spain General, referred to as Lieutenant Death, tell of their journey and their fight for survival and peace. Rosa struggles to erase the image that she is a girl-witch and is determined to fulfill her duties as a nurse. Using her natural surroundings and relying on her intuition, Rosa develops a way to provide the wounded with hope and dreams of peace in Cuba. Unfortunately, the war and the wounded are not the only struggles Rosa faces. She is constantly on the run from Lieutenant Death. She must make the ultimate decision when Lieutenant Death himself crawls into her cave of hospice. Will she heal the man who has hunted her for the entire duration of the war? Will Rosa and Jose, along with the entire population of people they have saved, survive the three-year war? Readers will be intrigued by this easy-to-read text, written from the perspectives of the characters themselves. Readers will journey through Cuba’s fight for freedom in the shoes of Rosa, girl-witch, nurse, humanitarian, and nurturer to many. Reviewer: Haley Messenger; Ages 12 up.
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up- Often, popular knowledge of Cuba begins and ends with late-20th-century textbook fare: the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Fidel Castro. The Surrender Tree , however, transports readers to another, though no less tumultuous, era. Spanning the years 1850-1899, Engle's poems construct a narrative woven around the nation's Wars for Independence. The poems are told in alternating voices, though predominantly by Rosa, a "freed" slave and natural healer destined to a life on the lam in the island' s wild interior. Other narrators include Teniente Muerte , or Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter turned ruthless soldier; José, Rosa's husband and partner in healing; and Silvia, an escapee from one of Cuba's reconcentration camps. The Surrender Tree is hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba's troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments such as the glimpse of a woman shuttling children through a cave roof for Rosa's care or the snapshot of runaway Chinese slaves catching a crocodile to eat. Though the narrative feels somewhat repetitive in its first third, one comes to realize it is merely symbolic of the unending cycle of war and the necessity for Rosa and other freed slaves to flee domesticity each time a new conflict begins. Aside from its considerable stand-alone merit, this book, when paired with Engle's The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Holt, 2006), delivers endless possibilities for discussion about poetry, colonialism, slavery, and American foreign policy.-Jill Heritage Maza, Greenwich High School, CT

Kirkus Reviews
Tales of political dissent can prove, at times, to be challenging reads for youngsters, but this fictionalized version of the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain may act as an entry to the form. The poems offer rich character portraits through concise, heightened language, and their order within the cycle provides suspense. Four characters tell the bulk of the story: Rosa, a child who grows up to be a nurse who heals the wounded, sick and starving with herbal medicine; her husband, Jose, who helps her move makeshift hospitals from cave to cave; Silvia, an orphaned girl who escapes a slave camp so that she may learn from Rosa; and Lieutenant Death, a hardened boy who grows up wanting only to kill Rosa and all others like her. Stretching from 1850 to 1899, these poems convey the fierce desire of the Cuban people to be free. Young readers will come away inspired by these portraits of courageous ordinary people. (author's note, historical note, chronology, references) (Fiction/poetry. 12+)
From the Publisher

“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.” —Booklist, Starred Review

“A powerful narrative in free verse . . . haunting.” —The Horn Book

“Hauntingly beautiful, revealing pieces of Cuba's troubled past through the poetry of hidden moments.” —School Library Journal

“Young readers will come away inspired by these portraits of courageous ordinary people.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The poems are short but incredibly evocative.” —Voice of Youth Advocates

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.17(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.69(d)
Age Range:
12 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Surrender Tree

Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom

By Margarita Engle

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2008 Margarita Engle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1744-5



The Names of the Flowers 1850–51


    Some people call me a child-witch,
    but I'm just a girl who likes to watch
    the hands of the women
    as they gather wild herbs and flowers
    to heal the sick.

    I am learning the names of the cures
    and how much to use,
    and which part of the plant,
    petal or stem, root, leaf, pollen, nectar.

    Sometimes I feel like a bee making honey —
    a bee, feared by all, even though the wild bees
    of these mountains in Cuba
    are stingless, harmless, the source
    of nothing but sweet, golden food.


    We call them wolves,
    but they're just wild dogs,
    howling mournfully —
    lonely runaways,
    like cimarrones,
    the runaway slaves who survive
    in deep forest, in caves of sparkling crystal
    hidden behind waterfalls,
    and in secret villages
    protected by magic

    protected by words —
    tales of guardian angels,
    mermaids, witches,
    giants, ghosts.


    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.

    The sick and injured
    are brought to us, to the women,
    for healing.

    When a runaway is well again,
    he will either choose to go back to work
    in the coffee groves and sugarcane fields,
    or run away again
    secretly, silently, alone.

    Lieutenant Death

    My father keeps a diary.
    It is required
    by the Holy Brotherhood of Planters,
    who hire him to catch runaway slaves.

    I watch my father write the numbers
    and nicknames of slaves he captures.
    He does not know their real names.

    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.


    I love the sounds
    of the jungle at night.

    When the barracoon
    where we sleep
    has been locked,
    I hear the music
    of crickets, tree frogs, owls,
    and the whir of wings
    as night birds fly,
    and the song of un sinsonte,
    a Cuban mockingbird,
    the magical creature
    who knows how to sing
    many songs all at once,
    sad and happy,
    captive and free ...
    songs that help me sleep
    without nightmares,
    without dreams.


    The names of the villages where runaways hide
    are Mira-Cielo, Look-at-the-Sky
    and Silencio, Silence
    Soledad, Loneliness
    La Bruja, The Witch....

    I watch the slavehunter as he writes his numbers,
    while his son,
    the boy we secretly call Lieutenant Death,
    helps him make up big lies.

    The slavehunter and his boy agree to exaggerate,
    in order to make their work
    sound more challenging,
    so they will seem like heroes
    who fight against armies with guns,
    instead of just a few frightened, feverish, hungry,
    escaped slaves,
    armed only with wooden spears,
    and secret hopes.

    Lieutenant Death

    When I call the little witch
    a witch-girl, my father corrects me —
    Just little witch is enough, he says, don't add girl,
    or she'll think she's human, like us.

    A pile of ears sits on the ground,
    waiting to be counted.

    This boy has a wound,
    my father tells the witch.
    Heal him.

    The little witch stares at my arm, torn by wolves,
    and I grin,
    not because I have to be healed by a slave-witch,
    but because it is comforting to know
    that wild dogs
    can be called wolves,
    to make them sound
    more dangerous,
    making me seem
    truly brave.


    The slavehunter and his son
    both stay away during the rains,
    which last six months, from May
    through October.

    In November he returns with his boy,
    whose scars have faded.

    This time they have their own pack of dogs,
    huge ones,
    taught to follow only the scent
    of a barefoot track,
    the scent of bare skin from a slave
    who eats cornmeal and yams,

    never the scent of a rich man on horseback,
    after his huge meal of meat, fowl, fruit,
    coffee, chocolate, and cream.

    Lieutenant Death

    We bring wanted posters from the cities,
    with pictures drawn by artists,
    pictures of men with filed teeth
    and women with tribal scars,
    new slaves
    who somehow managed to run away
    soon after escaping from ships
    that landed secretly, at night,
    on hidden beaches.

    I look at the pictures
    and wonder
    how all these slaves
    from faraway places
    find their way
    to this wilderness
    of caves and cliffs,
    wild mountains, green forest, little witches.


    After Christmas, on January 6,
    the Festival of Three Kings Day,
    we line up and walk, one by one,
    to the thrones where our owner and his wife
    are seated, like a king and queen
    from a story.

    They give us small gifts of food.
    We bow down, and bless them,
    our gift of words freely given
    on this day of hope,
    when we feel like we have
    nothing to lose.


    The nicknames of runaways
    keep us busy at night,
    in the barracoons, where we whisper.

    All the other young girls agree with me
    that Domingo is a fine nickname,
    because it means Sunday, our only half day of rest,
    and Dios Da is even better,
    because it means God Gives,
    and El Médico is wonderful —
    who would not be proud
    to be known as The Doctor?

    La Madre is the nickname
    that fascinates us most —
    The Mother — a woman, and not just a runaway,
    but the leader of her own secret village,
    free, independent, uncaptured —
    for thirty-seven
    magical years!

    Lieutenant Death

    My father captures some who pretend
    they don't know their owners' names,
    or the names of the plantations
    where they belong.

    They must want to be sold
    to someone new.

    They must hope that if they are sold here,
    near the steamy, jungled wilderness,
    they will be close to the caves,
    and the waterfalls,
    and witches.

    My father brings the same runaways back,
    over and over.

    I don't understand why they never give up!

    Why don't they lose hope?


    People imagine that all slaves are dark,
    but the indentured Chinese slaves run away too,
    into the mangrove swamps,
    where they can fish, and spear frogs,
    and hunt crocodiles by placing a hat on a stick
    to make it look like a man.

    The crocodile jumps straight up,
    out of the gloomy water,
    and snatches the hat,
    while a noose of rope made from vines
    tightens around the beast's green, leathery neck.

    I would be afraid to live in the swamps.
    People say there are güijes,
    small, wrinkled, green mermaids
    with long, red hair and golden combs ...
    mermaids who would lure me
    down into the swamp depths ...
    mermaids who would drag me into watery caves,
    where they would turn me into a mermaid too ...
    frog-green, and tricky.


    The slavehunter comes
    with an offer.

    He wants to buy me
    so I can travel
    with his horsemen
    and his huge dogs
    and his strange son
    into the wild places
    where wounded captives
    can be healed
    so they won't die.

    The price
    of a healed man
    is much higher
    than the price
    of an ear.


    My owner refuses.
    He needs me to cure
    sick slaves
    in the barracoons.

    After each hurricane season
    there are fevers, cholera, smallpox, plague.
    Some of the sick can be saved.
    Some are lost.

    I picture their spirits
    flying away.

    I sigh, so relieved that I will not
    have to travel with slavehunters
    and the spies they keep to help them,
    the captives who reveal the secret locations
    of villages where runaways sneak back and forth,
    trading wild guavas for wild yams,
    or bananas for boar meat,
    spears for vine rope,
    or mangos for palm hearts, flower medicines,

    Lieutenant Death

    The weapons of runaways are homemade,
    just sharpened branches, not real spears,
    and carved wooden guns, which, I have to admit,
    from a distance look real!

    We catch cimarrones with stolen cane knives too,
    all three kinds,
    the tapered, silver-handled ones used by free men,
    with engraved scallop-shell designs,
    and the bone-handled, short, leaflike ones,
    given to children,
    and the fan-shaped, blunt ones,
    used by slaves
    for cutting sugarcane
    to sweeten the chocolate and coffee
    of rich men.


    Secretly, I hide and weep
    when I learn that my owner
    has agreed to loan me
    to the slavehunter,
    who brings his hunter-in-training,
    his son, the boy with dangerous eyes,
    Teniente Muerte,
    Lieutenant Death.


    Spears and stones rain down on us
    from high above
    as we climb rough stairs
    chopped into the wall of a cliff
    somewhere out in the wilderness,
    in a place I have never seen.

    Sharp rocks slice my face and hands.
    I will be useless — without healthy fingers,
    how can I heal wounds
    and fevers?

    When the raid is over, many cimarrones are dead.
    I try to escape, but Lieutenant Death forces me
    to watch as he helps his father
    collect the ears
    of runaways.

    Some of the ears come from people
    whose names and faces
    I know.

    Lieutenant Death

    I hate to think
    what my father would say
    if he knew that I am scared
    of dogs, both wild and tame,
    and ghost stories,
    real and imaginary,
    and witches,
    even the little ones,
    and the ears of captives,
    still warm....


    After the raid,
    I tend the wounds
    of slavehunters
    and captives.

    Some look at me with fear,
    others with hope.

    I tend the wounds of a wild dog,
    and the slavehunters' huge dogs.
    All of them treat me like a nurse,
    not a witch.

    The grateful dogs make me smile,
    even the mean ones, trained to follow the tracks
    of barefoot men.

    They don't seem to hate
    barefoot girls.

    Hatred must be
    a hard thing to learn.



The Ten Years' War 1868–78


    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.


    In the month of October,
    when hurricanes loom,
    a few plantation owners
    burn their fields, and free their slaves,
    declaring independence
    from Spanish rule.

    Slavery all day,
    and then, suddenly, by nightfall — freedom!

    Can it be true,
    as my former owner explains,
    with apologies for all the bad years —

    Can it be true that freedom only exists
    when it is a treasure,
    shared by all?


    Farms and mansions
    are burning!

    Flames turn to smoke —
    the smoke leaps, then fades
    and vanishes ...
    making the world
    seem invisible.

    I am one of the few
    free women blessed
    with healing skills.

    Should I fight with weapons,
    or flowers and leaves?

    Each choice leads to another —
    I stand at a crossroads in my mind,
    deciding to serve as a nurse,
    armed with fragrant herbs,
    fighting a wilderness battle, my own private war
    against death.


    Side by side, former owners and freed slaves
    torch the elegant old city of Bayamo.
    A song is written by a horseman,
    a love song about fighting for freedom
    from Spain.

    The song is called "La Bayamesa,"
    for a woman from the burning city of Bayamo,
    a place so close to my birthplace, my home....

    Soon I am called La Bayamesa too,
    as if I have somehow been transformed
    into music, a melody, the rhythm of words....

    I watch the flames, feel the heat,
    inhale the scent of torched sugar
    and scorched coffee....
    I listen to voices,
    burning a song in the smoky sky.

    The old life is gone, my days are new,
    but time is still a mystery
    of wishes, and this sad, confusing fragrance.


    The Spanish Empire refuses to honor
    liberty for any slave who was freed by a rebel,
    so even though the planters
    who used to own us
    no longer want to own humans,
    slavehunters still roam
    the forest, searching, capturing, punishing ...

    so we flee
    to the villages
    where runaways hide ...
    just like before.


    In October,
    people walk in long chains of strength,
    arm in arm, to keep from blowing away.

    The wildness of wind, forest, sea
    brings storms that move
    like serpents,
    sweeping trees and cattle
    up into the sky.

    During hurricanes, even the wealthy
    wander like beggars,
    seeking shelter,
    arm in arm with the poor.


    War and storms make me feel old,
    even though I am still young enough
    to fall in love.

    I meet a man, José Francisco Varona,
    a freed slave,
    in the runaway slave village we call Manteca,
    because we have plenty of lard to use as cooking oil,
    the lard we get
    by hunting wild pigs.

    We travel through the forest together,
    trading lard for the fruit, corn, and yams
    grown by freed slaves and runaways,
    who live together in other hidden towns
    deep in the forest, and in dark caves.

    José and I agree to marry.
    Together, we will serve as nurses,
    healing the wounds of slavery,
    and the wounds of war.


    The forest is a land of natural music —
    tree frogs, nightingales, wind,
    and the winglets of hummingbirds
    no bigger than my thumbnail —
    hummingbirds the size of bees
    in a forest the size of Eden.

    José and I travel together,
    walking through mud, thorns,
    clouds of wasps, mosquitoes, gnats,
    and the mist that hides
    graceful palm trees,
    and the smoke that hides burning huts,
    flaming fields, orchards, villages, forts —
    anything left standing by Spain
    is soon torched by the rebels.

    José carries weapons,
    his horn-handled machete,
    and an old gun of wood and metal,
    moldy and rusted,
    our only protection against an ambush.
    The Spanish soldiers dress in bright uniforms,
    like parakeets.
    They march in columns, announcing
    their movements
    with trumpets and drums.

    We move silently, secretly.

    We are invisible.


    A Spanish guard calls, ¡Alto! Halt!
        ¿Quién vive? Who lives?
    He wants us to stop, but we slip away.

    He shouts: mambí savages,
    and even though mambí is not a real word,
    we imagine he chooses it
    because he thinks it sounds Cuban, Taíno Indian,
    or African, or mixed — a word from the language
    of an enslaved tribe —
    Congo, Arará,Carabalí,Bibí, or Gangá.


    we catch the rhythmic word,
    and make it our own,
    a name for our newly invented warrior tribe
    made up of freed slaves fighting side by side
    with former owners,
    all of us fighting together,
    against ownership of Cuba
    by the Empire of Spain,
    a ruler who refuses
    to admit that slaves
    can ever be free.


    Dark wings, a dim moonglow,
    the darting of bats,
    not the big ones that suck blood
    and eat insects,
    but tiny ones, butterfly-sized,
    the kind of bat
    that whisks out of caves to sip nectar
    from night-blooming blossoms,
    the fragrant white flowers my Rosa calls
    because they last only half a night.

    Rosa leads the bats away from our hut.
    They follow her light, as she holds up a gourd
    filled with fireflies, blinking.

    I laugh, because our lives, here in the forest,
    feel reversed —
    we build a palm-thatched house to use
    as a hospital,
    but everything wild that belongs outdoors
    keeps moving inside,
    and our patients, the wounded, feverish
    mambí rebels,
    who should stay in their hammocks resting —
    they keep getting up,
    to go outside,
    to watch Rosa, with her hands of light,
    leading the bats far away.

    Lieutenant Death

    They think they're free.
    I know they're slaves.

    I used to work for the Holy Brotherhood
    of plantation owners, but now I work
    for the Crown of Spain.

    Swamps, mountains, jungle, caves ...
    I search without resting, I seek the reward
    I will surely collect, just as soon as I kill
    the healer they call Rosa la Bayamesa,
    a witch who cures wild mambí rebels
    so they can survive
    to fight again.

    Lieutenant-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau,
    Marquis of Tenerife, Empire of Spain

    When the witch is dead,
    and the rebels are defeated,
    I will rest my sore arms and tired legs
    in the healing hot springs on this island of fever
    and ghostly, bat-infested caves.

    If the slavehunter fails,
    I will catch her myself.
    I will kill the witch, and keep her ear in a jar,
    as proof that owners cannot free their slaves
    without Spain's approval

    and as proof
    that all rebels in Cuba
    are doomed.


    Rumors make me short of breath,
    anxious, fearful, desperate.

    People call me brave, but the truth is:
    Rumors of slavehunters terrify me!

    Who could have guessed that after all these years,
    the boy I called Lieutenant Death
    when we were both children
    would still be out here, in the forest,
    chasing me, now,
    hunting me, haunting me....

    Who would have imagined
    such stubborn dedication? ...
    If only he would change sides
    and become one of us, a stubborn,
    determined, weary nurse,
    fighting this daily war
    against death!


    Rosa's fame as a healer brings danger.
    She cannot leave our hut,
    where the patients need her,
    so I travel alone to a field of pineapples
    where a young Spanish soldier lies wounded
    in his bright uniform,
    his head resting between mounds
    of freshly harvested fruit.

    The leaves of the pineapple plants
    are gray and sharp, like machetes
    the tips of the leaves cut my arms,
    but I do my best to treat the boy's wounds.
    I do this for Rosa, who wants to heal all.
    I do it for Rosa, but the boy-soldier thanks me,
    and after I feed him and give him water,
    he tells me he wants to change sides.

    He says he will be Cuban now, a mambí rebel.
    He tells me he was just a young boy
    who was taken
    from his family in Spain,
    a child who was put on a ship,
    forced to sail to this island, forced to fight.
    He tells me he loves Cuba's green hills,
    and hopes to stay, survive, be a farmer,
    find a place to plant crops....

    Together, we agree to try
    to heal the wounds between our countries.
    I help him take off his uniform.
    I give him mine.


Excerpted from The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle. Copyright © 2008 Margarita Engle. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. The Surrender Tree was a Newbery Honor Book. She lives in northern California.

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