The Surrender Tree, A Novel in Verse for Teens

Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree - Book Cover
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom. Henry Holt and Co.


The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle is an excellent example of a powerful novel in verse. A good way to gradually introduce teens to the world of poetry is to give them a novel in verse. A novel in verse is a story told in a series of poems. Written in short, lyrical narratives, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom is a historical retelling of Cuba’s thirty year war against Spanish rule as experienced by five different characters.

Story Line

In 1886 Cuba is ruled by the Spanish Empire, but a slave rebellion is brewing. As a child, Rosa, a slave girl, discovers she has a gift for healing using flowers and herbs as medicine. Slave owners and slave hunters respect and fear her; however, Rosa doesn’t differentiate between friend and enemy when it comes to healing the wounded. As she grows into womanhood, Rosa’s talent for healing becomes legendary. In 1896, after ten years of fighting, the slaves are set free, but the war for independence is not over. Of her role in the continuing war Rosa says,

"I am one of the few
free women blessed
with healing skills.

"Should I fight with weapons
or flowers or leaves?"

He calls her witch-girl. Lieutenant Death first meets Rosa when they are children and his father is a slave hunter. Enemies from the start, Lieutenant Death’s fear and fascination with Rosa becomes a personal crusade as over the years he’s determined to find the elusive healer and destroy her hospitals.

While the war for independence continues, Rosa marries Jose, a freed slave, who helps her to nurse the victims of the bloody war. Along with other rebels, Rosa and Jose move their hospital through the jungle sometimes creating makeshift hospitals in thatched huts or caves, but always staying ahead of the Spanish army.

"We move silently, secretly.
We are invisible."

Cuba’s struggle to win independence from Spain changes when a U.S. ship is attacked off the Cuban coast. Now Rosa wonders what will happen to her country as she watches the U.S. flag being raised near the place she calls The Surrender Tree:

"America is in control.
Where is the Cuban flag?"

When the struggles with Spain are over, Rosa, Jose, and the other survivors wonder at the new challenges ahead.

Author Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle, a descendant of Cuban refugees who survived Weyler’s reconcentration camps, is the first Latina to win a Newbery Award. Engle, a poet and journalist, writes all of her stories in novel in verse format. She believes this type of poetry can be very appealing to teens.  (Source: Publisher Weekly Interview, Q & A with Margarita Engle, 4/16/09).

Engle lives in northern California with her husband and continues to write fiction and nonfiction young adult books. Her book The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist was a 2014 Pura Belpré Honor Book.

Awards and Recognition

The Surrender Tree has received a lot of recognition, including: Newbery Honor Book (2009), the annual American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults list and the annual American Library Association Notable Children’s Books list.

Awards also include a Jane Addams Children's Book Award and a Pura Belpre Award.

The Surrender Tree: My Recommendation

Some of my favorite books for teens are novels in verse. I enjoy the easy flow of language and the short passages that elegantly combine a poetic format with narration.

Besides being a satisfying poetic read, The Surrender Tree is a historical novel that highlights the little known struggles of the small island country of Cuba. In addition, all of the main characters are based on real people, except for Silvia.

The character "Rosa" is actually Rosa Castellanos, a former slave with a talent for healing. Rosa and her husband Jose worked together and treated many sick and wounded during the three decades that Cuba fought for its independence. Although Engle admits to taking creative liberties with some of the little known aspects of their lives, she stays true to Rosa and Jose’s mission to heal all people in need of help.

Lieutenant Death was actually a slave hunter, but little is known about his death. General-Captain Weyler also existed. After the slaves were declared free, Weyler issued the decree that freed slaves had eight days to move to a reconcentation camp or be killed. The other fictional characters were created from information Engle gleaned while researching letters and diaries.

The Surrender Tree is an intense poetic and historical read that teens can read in a matter of a day. The novel in verse format removes any intimidation a teen might feel about reading poetry. Although the themes of slavery and war are central to the story, Engle’s elegant use of language and point of view make it easy for teen readers to absorb the story.

To further inspire interest about Rosa’s story, Engle provides additional resources at the end of The Surrender Tree for readers wanting to learn more about the history of Cuba. I recommend this book for ages 12-up. (Henry Holt, 2008. Hardcover ISBN: 9780805086744; Square Fish, 2010, Paperback ISBN: 978-0312608712) The book is also available in e-book editions.