The Plot: Engle's 2014 verse novel, Silver People is a polyvocal narrative that includes poems in the voices of imaginary characters, historical figures, and native plants and animals in Panama's forests. Silver People takes its title from the discriminatory silver/gold payroll system in the American-ruled Canal Zone during the construction of the Panama Canal. The verse novel takes place between the years of 1906 and 1915. The narrative begins by introducing the reader to Mateo, a 14-year-old orphaned boy from Cuba, who boards a steamship to Panama after an American Panama Canal recruiter promises food, housing, and pay for his labor. After an arduous journey at sea with no food for three days, Mateo arrives in Panama, and he finds that the recruiter's promises are not truthful. The work is grueling, the working and living conditions are poor, and workers often become ill with malaria and yellow fever. Despite these hardships and the racial discrimination faced by the young laborers, Mateo and his companions manage to make a life for themselves in Panama. Early on in the narrative, he befriends Anita, a local yerbera, or herb girl, and a Jamaican boy named Henry. The narrative alternates between the voices of Engle's imagined characters: Mateo, Anita, Henry, Old Maria (Anita's adoptive grandmother), and Augusto (a Puerto Rican with a PhD in geology from a New York university) and historical figures such as John Stevens, Theodore Roosevelt, George Goethals, Jackson Smith, Gertrude Beeks, and Harry Franck. Engle also includes eight sections of poems that are told from the imagined voices of native plants and animals in the forest including: howler monkeys, trees, vipers, butterflies, crocodiles, and frogs. The inclusion of these personified voices demonstrates the ways in which the landscape of Panama and the individuals who labored on the canal are intimately connected in that both were harmed immeasurably. The epilogue to the verse novel is a letter from Augusto to Mateo, Anita, and Henry noting that at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition fails to honor the silver people who labored and died in the construction of the canal.
The Poetry: Engle is the author of nine verse novels for young readers, and her tenth is scheduled for publication in August. Like Engle's many other verse novels for young readers, Silver People relies heavily upon the use of lyricism and imagery to depict the natural world and the emotional lives of her characters. For example, in the poem "The Voyage from Cuba" Mateo reflects upon hunger and the experience of being at sea for three days:
feels like a knife in the flesh--
twisted blade, rusty metal
the piercing tip of a long
called regret (10).Later in the narrative, Augusto the map maker provides Mateo with art supplies and he begins to sketch the wonders of the forest around him. In the poem "Completely Magnificent" he describes the animals he paints:
two swiftly sprinting whiptail lizards,
and all the gigantic rodents that graze
on gold-zone lawns-- cat-size agoutis
and dog-size capybaras, none of them
afraid to be captured
by my paintbrush (131).The Page: In terms of form, Engle's verse novel is primarily told through free verse poems in the alternating voices of eleven characters. Each section of poems in the voices of human characters is separated by a section called "The Forest," and in these eight sections, Engle depicts the voices of plants and animals as they respond to the canal's construction. These poems often take the form of visual poetry (shaped verse or concrete poetry). For example, the poem "The Giant Hissing Cockroaches" includes short phrases alternatively right and left justified so that the words appear to flit across the page, mimicking the movement of the cockroach (104).
Engle's Silver People was an interesting and engaging narrative, and she employs her signature lyric free verse to represent a historical moment and give voice to the Cuban experience. I give Silver People four stars and recommend it to those who already enjoy Engle's verse novels.