The power of poetry in telling stories is being utilized in literature for young people more and more, to everyone’s benefit. As I have already said, this year has been particularly fruitful for novels-in-verse, producing such works as Brown Girl Dreaming, Caminar and The Crossover. In addition to those excellent titles, master poetical storyteller Margarita Engle brings us Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.
Told in a chorus of voices, with four main characters, Silver People gives a slice of the on-the-ground action in building the “eighth wonder of the world”. Mateo is from Cuba, but passes as a Spaniard (islanders are unwanted). Henry is from Jamaica, and speaks English. Anita is a Panamanian who sells herbs and cures and wields a machete to protect herself from “poisonous snakes/ and mean men.” Augusto, Puerto Rican born, hailing from New York, is in Panama because of his maps, and is paid in gold, unlike the islanders, who are paid in silver.
Like many of Engle’s other novels-in-verse, Silver People deals with heavy issues, including discrimination, racism, poverty, grief, and abuse, not to mention the backbreaking work of actually digging the famous canal. Mateo and Henry must navigate the barbs of a very unwelcoming life, with Anita and Augusto’s help. Engle offers no one an easy solution. Difficult choices are made, and though the characters might end up in a better place than they started, it is by no means smooth sailing ahead.
With every new character introduction, Engle places her characters squarely on the map. Language and cultural indications flourish in Engle’s descriptions. Jamaican Henry is described in comparison to the “sunburned/ American engineers and foremen” and “the medium-dark/ Spanish men”. The differences between all the nationalities are maintained, as well as they similarities. Anita says of the ridiculous “Panama hats”, “Don’t they/ understand that Latin America/ has many countries?”
Silver People received a starred review from Booklist. “Engle tells her stirring story in multiple voices, including President Theodore Roosevelt and even the fauna and flora of the jungle. And she vividly presents her Panamanian setting and the often cruel context of the canal's construction and its system of segregation that separated dark-skinned islanders and olive-skinned southern Europeans from Americans and northern Europeans.” Kirkus Reviews called Engle’s verse “characteristically elegant.”
The building of the Panama Canal was a huge undertaking, about which much has been written. For older readers, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is essential reading. Younger readers, or those who are simply looking for, as Hermione would put it, “a little light reading”, might enjoy Elizabeth Mann’s The Panama Canal or other similar titles. While Mateo, Henry, Anita and Augusto are fictional characters, other voices heard in Silver People are those of real individuals. Readers interested in learning more could look towards George Goethals, Panama Canal Engineer by Jean Lee Latham or To Dare Might Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport. And of course, any reader who enjoyed Silver People would be well served in seeking out Engle’s other wonderful books, including The Surrender Tree, The Wild Book and Hurricane Dancers.
Engle, Margarita. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN: 9780544109414