The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. 2008. Margarita Engle. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Winner of the Pura Belpré Award. A Newberry Honor Book.


In haunting free verse, Margarita Engle details Cuba’s struggle for freedom from Spain, spanning the years from 1850 through 1899, and the Spanish American War. The book is a marvelous blending of genres: history, memoir, and poetry, told in several voices. Central to the story is the legendary Rosa, a freed slave and self-taught nurse, who heals others using plants, herbs, and wisdom. Oher voices include those of José, her husband and devoted friend; Silvia, a young woman who escapes from the concentration camps hoping to find this Rosa about whom she has heard so much, and become like her; and the dreaded Teniente Muerte, Lieutenant Death, who knows Rosa as a child and in an ugly twist of fate, grows up vowing to kill her for reward. The imagery of the book is especially powerful–and sometimes disturbing: children being thrust through rooftops in order to receive care, runaways hunting crocodiles in the wetlands in order to survive, souvenir ears used to show that slaves resisted capture and died fighting–so the hunter may claim a greater bounty. Yet beneath these brutal images we also sense Engle’s love for Cuba, its beautiful landscapes, and the heart of a people who will not give up their soul no matter how fierce the persecution becomes. Ultimately, this book celebrates courage, determination, and the will to survive–and to help others, even at the risk of one’s own life. The characters are based on historical figures, most notably Rosario Castellanos Castellanos (Rosa in the book), who tirelessly moved her tiny hospitals from one cave to another under grueling conditions, hiding refugees in the jungle, and even (to the amazement and admiration of her husband and friends) treating enemy combatants, so great was her desire to heal and to help.

Ages: Young Adult

In the Classroom

  • Take time to discuss Cuban history. What do your students know of the period from the mid 1800s until the turn of the century? Who has heard of the Spanish-American War or knows why it was fought? How many know that Cuba fought for independence from Spain–or why?
  • In some cultures, people who heal are known as witches. Why would this be? How many cultures throughout the world rely upon herbal medicines and other natural cures? Do your students know anyone who practices naturopathic medicine? Talk about this approach to healing in contrast to Western medicine as we think of it in a technological age. What are the differences–and what do these approaches have in common?
  • Read all or part of the book aloud, and encourage students to read the entire book, beginning to end. Talk about events or images that stand out for them.
  • Discuss this author’s character development. What does she show us about Rosa, for example, to help us understand this complex character? What words would you use to describe Rosa? Why is she the “center” of the book?
  • This is a book rich with sensory detail. In particular, talk about feelings and sounds that make the setting for this book especially vivid. What is it like, for example, to be in one of the caves where Rosa treats the sick and wounded?
  • Two things make this genre especially unusual for a book about war. For one thing, it is told in poetry. For another, it is told in multiple voices. First, talk about the author’s use of free verse poetry to recount a story of war. Does this seem an unusual choice? Is the combination of poetry and war a kind of conflict–or the perfect combination? How is free verse poetry different from other forms? Is it still poetry–even though it does not rhyme, and at times, sounds much like prose? What makes it so?
  • Second, talk about the author’s use of multiple voices. Is this an effective technique in exploring how war affects individuals, families, and whole cultures? Why? Think about the specific voices that author Margarita Engle chose for this book. Did she make good choices? How can this tiny handful of voices give us an expansive picture of a nation at war?
  • Read portions of the book aloud, having each reader assume one of the voices. Discuss the impact of actually hearing those voices brought to life.
  • Do some research on any of the people who inspired this book. To get started, read the author’s “Historical Note” and “Chronology,” pages 161-166. Then check out the “Selected References,” pages 167-168. Consider the author’s portrayal of each character. Based on your research, are those portrayals authentic? Would you have added any details–or done anything differently?
  • Imagine that this book were to become the basis for a documentary. Which scenes would you film and why? What would you want the world to know about Cuba’s fight for independence?
  • Create a short poetic history of any period you are currently studying–or just find interesting. Consider breaking students into groups of 4-6 to create several different voices. If each writer creates four or five passages, you will have a fairly extensive book covering the period. Students will need to research the period and also give careful thought to the characters that would be representative and significant. Perform the results for your class or for the school.