A poetic exploration of the construction of the Panama Canal.
From the animal inhabitants of the Panamanian jungle, disturbed and displaced by the construction, and the trees felled to the human workers, Engle unites disparate voices into a cohesive narrative in poems chronicling the creation of the Panama Canal. Mateo, a 14-year-old Cuban lured by promises of wealth, journeys to Panama only to discover the recruiters’ lies and a life of harsh labor. However, through his relationships with Anita, an “herb girl,” Henry, a black Jamaican worker, and Augusto, a Puerto Rican geologist, Mateo is able to find a place in his new land. The Newbery Honoree and Pura Belpré winner’s verse is characteristically elegant, and her inclusion of nonhuman voices brings home the environmental impact of the monumental project. Given this breadth, Engle’s choice to center her story on a nonblack protagonist is saddening, as the majority of the workers on the Panama Canal were black islanders. Furthermore, while Mateo and Anita—and even many of the flora and fauna characters—are represented on the cover, Henry, a prominent character and the only black given a voice, does not make an appearance—a regrettable decision.
Engle’s new offering contains moments of true poetic beauty, but these choices detract from an otherwise lovely, enlightening book. (author’s note, selected bibliography) (Historical fiction/verse. 10-14)