Silver People by Margarita Engle
This book came across my desk just before I left on a LONG holiday. But even simply flicking through the pages and noting the author and publisher, clearly this was going to be a very special book. One copy went immediately to the top of the review pile, but the pile did not fit into the travel case. Back now – and in only a couple of hours I discovered that first impressions rang very true.
Time – early 20th century. Historical event – the building of the Panama Canal. Two boys from Caribbean islands get jobs on the digging crew, one with slave ancestors and the other descended from Spanish. Both are promised gold, but paid silver – hence the title. The gold was saved for the Americans who ran the machinery and supervised the work. In spite of strict segregation of the races, these boys become friends and help each other survive, and eventually escape to set up new lives in the New Panama.
This is written as a verse novel, not that any of the poetry rhymes. The technique allows the author great freedom to tell her story from many different points of view. Every alternate ‘chapter’ is actually narrated by the rainforest and the animals found within. New characters enter the story, and leave, simply and naturally.
I have read many verse novels over the years, but this one impressed more than most. Engle used visual as well as rhythmic techniques for her poetry. Sometimes I wanted to pause and just read that poem again, or the poem demanded to be read aloud. Someday I really really want to read one of howler monkey poems to a class. And the Tree Viper poem may only be a few words long, but it is very powerful.
As you can probably tell, I loved it.