Review of the Day: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle
If children’s authors were given superpowers upon the occasion of their first publication, I know what Margarita Engle’s would be. Stealth. She’s the kind of author you never see coming. You can pick up a book of hers, be it The Poet Slave of Cuba or The Surrender Tree and you’ll never see her wordplay coming. She plays fair, of course. From page one onward you see exactly what you’re getting yourself into, sometimes as early as the first line. What you took to be the poor man’s version of a novel (the verse novel sometimes fails to get the appropriate amount of respect it deserves) instead has taken a board with a nail in it and is now systematically whacking you in the heart with its text. In the case of Ms. Engle, Cuba serves as her muse, and not in the way you might expect (see: Castro). Through her books kids are learning about historical aspects of Cuba that you simply cannot find anywhere else in juvenile lit. She’s already tackled slavery in The Poet Slave of Cuba and the war of independence from Spain The Surrender Tree. Now comes the most child-friendly of her novels. Don’t mistake the term "child-friendly" with "simplistic", though. Perhaps the best plotted and conceived of her novels, Engle writes her most touching tribute to Cuba yet. As a place where all people with an inclination have found their own true home.
He was meant to wind up in New York. That was the plan. When Daniel’s parents spent all their money buying their son a ticket out of Nazi Germany, the idea was for him to disembark in Manhattan and meet his parents eventually there once they could get across. Instead, his ship was denied access to disembark in America, and sailed south to Cuba. Determined not to forget his parents, Daniel is so committed to his dream that he even has difficulty even parting with his hot winter clothing during the sultry Cuban days. While there he meets and befriends Paloma. Daughter of a corrupt Cuban official leeching money off the refuges, Paloma spends most of her days in her dovecote, living with the birds. The two kids are also friends with David, a Jewish man who once fled Russia, and who gives Daniel the advice and friendship he needs to move on. Secrets are revealed, friendships strengthened, and Daniel finds a way of living without merely going through the motions.
You pay your money for a Margarita Engle book and what do you expect in return? Words words words. You want to see a woman at her craft, and Tropical Secrets will provide. There are lines like "I am thirteen, a young man, / but today I feel / like a baby seagull / with a broken beak." It’s particularly sweet when you consider that later he will befriend Paloma, a girl who would care for such a bird. My plucking that line out of context does little to diminish its feel. Just look at these lines as I remove them from the story and tell them to stand on their own:
"I have nothing to say / to any stranger who treats me / like a normal person / with a family / and a home."
"I was taught that there are four / kinds of people in the world – / wise, wicked, simple, / and those who do not yet know how to ask questions."
I’d quote more to you, but many of the best (like a line Paloma has about wolves and saints) retain their power only within the context of the story.
Theme… boy, I hate talking about theme. I’m not a thematically minded person. If I notice a book has done something clever with a theme I’ll sort of point at it and, in my customary caveman-like manner go, "Theme. Theme good. *grunt*" In terms of Tropical Secrets there was a moment in particular that just killed me. At one point in the book Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and America declares war. In response, the Cuban government arrests everyone who is German and NOT Jewish. Says Daniel, "I cannot understand / how the J / that condemned me / in Germany / has been transformed / into a mark of safety / on this crazy island-" And later, "and will it help them / understand / that those who feel safe today / could be the ones in need of refuge / tomorrow?" I’m always particularly struck by works of historical fiction that can take crazy true facts like this one, and then get to the nut of the situation in as few words as possible.
Sometimes I feel like Engle works so hard on her imagery that her plotting suffers. But the gaps I felt in something like The Surrender Tree (a man spends practically his entire life hunting down a woman and then just disappears from the text without so much as a bow?) aren’t present here. However, like her other novels I didn’t get a real sense of the ending of the novel. [Spoiler Alert] I appreciated that she didn’t tack on a happy ending for Daniel, of course. Had he suddenly met the next boat in the harbor and discovered his entire family safe and well and on-board, that would have been something. As it stands, however, his acceptance of his past serves as its own capper. There is room for a sequel here, though. By the end you have a sense of Daniel’s story and where it may go, but Paloma’s is still wide-open, waiting for a bit of closure beyond her birds.
It’s hard to establish character with so few words, but not impossible. In Engle’s books, adults are often suspect and flawed. They’re victims of their own desires, forgoing basic human decency in the face of greed or obsession. Paloma’s father is no exception here. You are allowed a single glimpse into his heart, and the reasons why he does the horrible things he does. But it’s a brief glimpse, hardly long enough to make you feel anything for him but mounting disgust. Because Engle likes to switch her point of view from person to person, you have to be constantly on your toes, paying attention to who is saying what. If it works, it’s only because she has a firm grip on her own characters. She’d have to in order to make her bad guys understandable and still hideous.
I’m not a fan of violence in books and the sheer torture and gore of The Poet Slave of Cuba meant that I could respect the novel but never love it. That’s a personal thing. Some of that feeling remained with The Surrender Tree too. Violence was still prevalent, but at least in the text there was a level of distance. Tropical Secrets is the most removed from this kind of sheer brutality, but you can’t tell a story about Holocaust survivors and not mention what it is that they are escaping. The first sentence in this book reads, "Last year in Berlin, / on the Night of Crystal, / my grandfather was killed / while I held his hand." You get no extenuating circumstances other than these words on the page. No gory details. Just the horror of your own imagination. It is enough.
Every person you meet has a point of view. Engle shows kids this. Even the bad people. Even the mean or confused people. She takes moments when humans have done simply terrible things to one another and then enters their heads. Their thoughts become verse, saying what they cannot or could not. Tropical Secrets sits well with the reluctant reader and the world-weary twelve-year-old with a taste for Steinbeck alike. A person always has to consider whether or not a verse novel really needs to be written in that style or if the author is just being lazy. No one will ever say that Ms. Engle is lazy, though. And this style fits the book like a hand in a glove. A remarkable novel about an amazing and true moment you probably will not find in your average elementary school world history textbook.
On shelves now.
First Line: “Last year in Berlin, / on the Night of Crystal, / my grandfather was killed / while I held his hand.”
Notes on the Cover: Raul Colon is the kind of artist that can do wonders for your book if you know how to use him the right way. In this case, choosing him to illustrate the cover of Tropical Secrets turns out to be this side of inspired. Notice the lush green foliage that appears to pressing in on the boat itself. Daniel, standing there in his hat, coat, and scarf, refusing to take them off in spite of the island heat. The greenery even surrounds Daniel in the center, encircling him, drawing your eye to him naturally. The red of the banister beneath his hand, the orange of his scarf, all the colors in this image work together beautifully. Well played all around.
- Don’t trust my lying gob? Read the book for yourself.
- And in this Q&A with Publishers Weekly, Ms. Engle discusses her inspiration for writing this book and how she went about creating in. Five points deducted from PW for the snarky words regarding the Newbery.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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