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


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 ...

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

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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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

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."—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.” —VOYA

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+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805086744
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 263,714
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Product dimensions: 6.17 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.69 (d)

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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Reading Group Guide

1. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story through

poetry instead of prose?

2. The book follows Rosa from childhood through adulthood.

How have the wars changed her?

3. Lieutenant Death says that his father corrected him when he

called Rosa a witch-girl because if he adds girl, “she’ll think

she’s human, like us.” How do you think this statement affected

Lieutenant Death’s opinion of Rosa?

4. We never learn Lieutenant Death’s real name. All of the other

characters who speak have their real name as the character

heading. How does this affect your opinion of the character?

5. Rosa heals Lieutenant Death after he falls from a tree. Why

does she help him? Why, even after her help, does he still

want to kill her?

6. Find a passage in the book that you enjoyed or felt a connection

with. Discuss what it was about that passage that made

it memorable for you.

7. Who was your favorite character and why?

8. What does the Surrender Tree represent to Rosa?

9. Why does Rosa help anyone, no matter what side they fight

for, free of charge?

10. Silvia ends the book saying “Peace is not the paradise I

imagined, but it is a chance to dream.” What do you think

she means by this? What do you think the rest of her life

will be like?

11. Take an experience from your own life and write a few lines

of poetry to tell the story.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A great read for all ages.

    It's not surprising that the Surrender Tree won so many awards, including a Newbery Honor. The language is beautiful, and the story itself is one that is not often told. Especially for an American audience, this text reveals a new type of Cuba that predates the Communist revolution that sparked an arms race during the Kennedy presidency. This is a Cuba much like the early America or Jamaica-a country of people who want to have their own independence, who want to live freely as one people, no slavery, all equals. It's interesting to see the story from so many perspectives, and I think that Engle adroitly switches through the first person narratives with ease. Often writers will struggle to create variance in the voices and speech patterns of their characters, but each of the four sounds different from each other, not only in style and rhythm, but also in their character-hopes, dreams, loves, actions, driving forces. I read it twice, and I would recommend it to all readers.

    -Lindsey Miller,

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2010

    A masterpiece.

    Margarita Engle weaves an intricate story about Cuba's struggle to free itself from Spain through poetry in The Surrender Tree. The story revolves around a native Cuban women who travels through Cuba mending all of those harmed by the disastrous effects of the war. Throughout the novel, multiple characters assume the position of the narrator and help further the plot by relaying information about the ongoing war through poetry. When I first began reading the novel, I was extremely skeptical of it; it seemed rather sketchy to me. I was not too keen on reading and entire novel's worth of poems. However, after surpassing my initial fear of it, I began to really comprehend the meaning of the novel. The poetry is original; it comes straight from the soul. There are no abstract ideas in which you must take a long period of time to interpret or decipher, as is common with many other poems. The ideas are clear and definitive and leave no leniency. Engle does a marvelous job in delivering the people's message. Every cry for joy and weep of agony penetrates every orifice of our minds. Although, the story is not so extraordinary to the point where I, an average American, cannot relate to it because of its drastic setting. I can recall various times that I felt deeply emotional while reading the novel. When Silvia lost everything she held close to her, I nearly broke down in tears with her. Engle has struck a chord in the hearts of all who read this novel. The sorrow and the agony expressed throughout will hit home in all of our hearts and drive us to a near state of anguish. However, as is similar in life, Engle displays feelings of bliss, elation, and jubilation that will warm us to our core and remind us of the purity our world offers. Engle has most certainly created a novel that will last for an eternity. Everyone will remember Cuba's struggle for freedom. It's deeper meaning of unity will leave an everlasting impression on all who read it. I highly recommend this book for everyone of all ages and hope that my review will be helpful.

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