Friday, June 2, 2017

Margarita Engle's _Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck_

The Plot: In Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), a 2012 Pura Belpre Honor Book, Margarita Engle tells a story alternating five characters' perspectives: Quebrado, a young slave of Taino Indian and Spanish ancestry; Bernardino de Talavera, a real-life conquistador who became the first pirate of the Caribbean Sea in the 1500s when he stole a boat to avoid debtors' prison; Alonso de Ojeda, a brutal European slave trader and conquistador who was taken prisoner by Talavera; and two young islanders who are secretly in love -- Caucubu, the daughter of a Ciboney chieftain, and Narido, a fisherman. Engle invented the character Quebrado, but the remaining characters are all historical figures-- two European and two Cuban. Engle reveals in her author's note that she "became fascinated by the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck while researching [her] own family history" as one of her ancestors "was a Cuban pirate who used his treasure to buy the cattle each where many generations of [her] mother's family were born" (135). She notes further that she became the subject of the Cuban DNA project and discovered that she carries a genetic marker verifying tens of thousands of years of maternal Ameindian ancestry; Engle is "a descendant of countless generations of women like Caucubu. Indigenous Cubans do survive in body, as well as spirit" (135).

The Poetry: The majority of Hurricane Dancers meditates upon the enslaved life of Quebrado, who is referred to as "broken boy," "spirit-boy," "storm-boy," and "born-of-wind friend" by various characters throughout the narrative. While the experiences of the other characters in the narrative are interesting, the poems told from Quebrado's perspective are the most lyrical and lively on the page. For instance, the first poem in the collection "Quebrado," begins:
I listen
to the song
of creaking planks,
the roll and sway
of clouds in sky,
wild music
and thunder,
the groans
of wood,
a mourning moan (3).
The poem ends as the speaker links the old ship's sounds with the materials used to create it, explaining that the sounds echo the ship's memory of "her true self / her tree self / ... alive" (3). Poems like this one, steeped in metaphor reflecting the natural world and ringing with sound and rhythm, are characteristic of those told from the point of view of Quebrado.

The Page: Hurricane Dancers is divided into six parts: "Wild Sea," "Brave Earth," "Hidden," "The Sphere Court," "The Sky Horse," and "Far Light." Engle begins her verse novel with a quote uttered by Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest and a description of Talavera from Bartolome de las Casas's History de las Indias; a note on her historical setting; and a list and description of the cast of characters. The verse novel ends with an author's note; a historical note detailing her narrative's connection to historical characters and events, culture and language, and literature; and a list of references.

I found Hurricane Dancers to be extremely engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed Engle's characteristic use of free verse, lyricism, and imagery within her historical narrative. I give Hurricane Dancers four stars and highly recommend it.