'Silver People' turns the building of the Panama Canal into poetry

This delightful historical novel-in-verse by award-winning author Margarita Engle tells the story of the creation of the Panama Canal through various character voices – some historic, some fictitious, and some taken from the animal world.

Silver People By Margarita Engle Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 272 pp.

Even if I weren’t fascinated by stories of the creation of the Panama Canal and even if I weren’t a fan of novels-in-verse, I would have to love this book for the tree viper’s poem on page 60. 

In Silver People, award-winning author Margarita Engle’s new novel for readers ages 10 and up, Mateo is one of the workers recruited in Cuba to do the back-breaking labor of building the new canal. Because he’s determined to find work, any work, he accepts the gamble for trying out a whole new life – one he hopes will be better. Traveling the sea for three days with no food on board, the 14-year-old lands in Panama, a place where there is “nothing but mud and jungle in every direction.” By the time he arrives, he has told “so many lies that my conscience feels as hollow as my belly.” A bleak picture is quickly revealed. Workers are separated by skin color, language, and ability. And Mateo’s pay is 20 cents per hour of misery.  

As Mateo labors at the never-ending work of lifting and moving heavy train tracks to create this “monstrous ditch,” the bright, hopeful spot is his friend Anita. Because she understands the trees and the mud and also knows helpful herbal cures learned from her adopted grandmother, Anita breaks rules and travels more freely between the arbitrary color and class lines dictated by the canal’s planners.

According to Engle’s Historical Note at the end of the book, the French had tried and failed to build a canal in the 1800s. The result was disastrous. In 1904 with the importation of laborers, the US undertook one of the most difficult engineering projects ever attempted. The canal was opened in 1914. During those 10 years, 5,600 lives were lost to yellow fever, malaria, and landslides. The payroll system of silver workers and gold, which gives the book its title, discriminated against darker-skinned laborers like Mateo and continued until 1955.

Readers learn about the creation of the Panama Canal through various character voices, some taken from history, some from the animal world, some fictitious. Poems spoken by The King Vulture, Giant Swallowtail Butterflies, and Howler Monkeys who live in the endangered rain forest – and even The Trees – paint a vivid picture of this historic time and place.

The poetry here is exquisite, but Cuban-American writer Engle’s storytelling is equally beautiful. The voices describing the shared misery and struggles of Mateo and the Silver People are compelling. Although there are other accounts of the planning and building of the Panama Canal, this novel offers a different perspective. Read it for Mateo’s journey from his homeland on to his gradual, eventual understanding and acceptance of his life in Panama. Read it for the distinctive stories of the workers as well as for the glorious poetry.

At the end of the book, Mateo’s friend Augusto writes an epilogue from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco telling of tourists marveling over the “man-made Wonder of the World.” He laments that no one knows or cares to hear the voices of the people who labored with their shovels and courage to finish the canal. With Engle’s new poetic novel, written as the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal approaches, their stories have now been told.

Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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