author: Margarita Engle
date: HMH Children’s Books; March 2013
main character: Mateo
“Strange as it seems, the ‘globalization’ of international trade did not begin with the Internet but was launched a century ago when a new waterway suddenly made the world seem small.” This line ends Silver People, the story of the workers who built the Panama Canal in which Margarita Engle combines the voices of workers from Cuba, Panama, Jamaica and the United States to tell the story of the conditions in which the Canal was built. From the very beginning of the story, readers are aware of the differing treatment people received that took into account details such as skin tone, country of origin and gender. Although perpetuated by the Whites in power, this racism is so institutionalized that not even they can alter this system. They’re also aware of the culture of the Panamanian people and the flora and fauna of the country.
The story begins in 1906 when young Mateo is recruited from his home in Cuba with the dream of high wages and a more satisfying life. In her trademark open verse style of writing, Engle deftly recreates the back-breaking hardships and the imposed racism that the work crews endured throughout the eight years it took to complete the project. She manages to capture the inhumanity of their treatment while at the same time realizing their character to the reader. And, she does this in a way that will neither overwhelm nor disturb young readers. Engle relates the story with gentle care and compassion by making this a story of Panama and not just the Canal. She literally brings the setting to life by giving voice to trees and monkeys. While the Canal was built to facilitate trade, the act of building it had a huge impact on the biodiversity of the region. Mateo meets Augusto and learns how to develop his artistic talents as they draw life forms found in the Panamanian rain forest.
Rich details trace the impact of non-indigenous footprints on the environment. I always enjoy Engle’s novels as they recreate less known people and places with well researched details. They’re layered in ways that each reader will truly have a unique experience with the book. While I focused on the harshness, others will wander through the jungle scenes with others will watch as relationships develop.
Engle’s other works include The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book and Mountain Dog.