Title: SILVER PEOPLE – Voices from the Panama Canal
Author: Margarita Engle
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 25th, 2014
Genre/Form: Historical fiction in verse
Themes: Creation of Panama Canal, laborers, race, rain forest
MATEO from the Island of Cuba
Fear is fierce wind that sends me reeling down to the seashore, where I beg for work, any work at all, any escape to carry me far from my father’s furious fists.
SILVER PEOPLE looks at the creation of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, and in particular at the fictitious lives of Mateo, a young Cuban laborer, and his friends. The setting is factual. The story is narrated in verse from multiple points of view, including historical figures such as George Goethals, Jackson Smith and Theodore Roosevelt. Engle states that ‘poems in the voices of historical figures are based on their own documented statements’. Mateo flees to Panama away from an abusive father. He is an artistic young Cuban man in his mid teens, trying to make sense of this new brutal life far from his native island. In these inhuman conditions, he makes friends with other laborers, a local girl abandoned in the forest and adopted by an old Cuban healer, and a Puerto Rican, an honorary pale-skinned American, with a heart of gold, geological expertise and a passion for wildlife and art. Henry, first foe then friend of Mateo’s, is a Jamaican worker, and he and Mateo teach each other their mother tongues in this melting pot of cultures. The different characters and cultures are beautifully etched for the reader through a verse infused with historical, cultural weight and beauty. Margarita includes one of the local tribes, one member of which falls in love and marries Henry.
The lyrical points of view from nun-human forest dwellers remind me, in a good way, of this technique used by Leslea Newman’s OCTOBER MOURNING. The forest, and not just the workers, is subject to exploitation during the ten+ years of digging, and we listen to the howl of the howler monkeys (who speak in ALL CAPS) and the lamenting voices of trees, sloths, frogs and more, adding a very unique call to this story.
The Silver people are the darker skinned imported laborers, mainly from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica (and some olive skinned Mediterraneans). These workers were paid just a few silver coins for their backbreaking work. The paler skinned European and U.S. workers were paid in gold. Engle contrasts and compares gold and silver, light and dark, through the novel, as part of her exposé of the racist and exploitive nature of the Panama Canal project on this region and these people, local and immigrant.
The poems from well known historical American figures such as John Stevens, Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal etc. reveal the scathing arrogance to which Mateo and the other workers were subjected.
If I could hire only white Americans, I would, but they don’t want shovel jobs and they won’t work for silver.
Dark islanders are my only choice…
The story is really about the exploited refusing their victim label and making seeing/creating beauty in the midst of the ugly side of globalization!
Why I like this book:
This is a magical tribute, exactly a century later, to the lives of those unsung heroes who manually dug this Canal of miracles, global power and destruction. I am a big fan of poetic prose and know they are a challenging form. Historical fiction verse novels are rare, and I believe Engle manages a tremendous balance between trueness to the form and to the time period. I get every sense that this is a very well researched novel.
Indigenous values are imparted through the importance of the forest and plant life etc The contrast between those that embrace other cultures and those that segregate and exalt themselves over other cultures is clear. Over a hundred nationalities were involved in making the canal and I love how Engle weaves many into this story. I imagine it is also Engle’s botanist background which urged her to add the forest voices to speak their concern as their habitat was being threatened. As an ecologically-minded reader I welcomed this unique perspective.
This is a book focused on an event in history about which I was sorely ignorant, and what a splendid way for me to resolve some of that ignorance. Thought the subject-matter is weighty, the poetic prose propels the story forward with ease. I am sure this will find a home on school, library and personal shelves. I hope that the reading of this story will restore some of the honor due to the half a million Caribbeans that worked in Panama from 1850 to 1914 amidst poverty, disease and the constant danger of landslides. Thousands lost their lives and many did not return to their homelands. These poems give voices to the voiceless and to the incredible engineering feat of the beginning of last century. Engle achieves both the big picture of this phenomenal project as well as the intimate details of the lives of some of canal’s creators. The forest and the trees speak!
I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review.