When the Newbery Medal was awarded on Monday, there were surprises and (inevitably, as always) disappointments. But most of the books being discussed on Monday had been discussed – sometimes ad naseum – in the weeks and months leading up to the award announcement. Perhaps the only true surprise, the book that, up until that moment had not been on anyone’ s radar, was The Surrender Tree.
A novel in verse, celebrating Cuba’s thirty year struggle for freedom in the late 1800’s, Surrender Tree took away not just one but two major awards. It was the winner of the Pura Belpre Author Award for excellence in books written with Latino/a culture and it was named a Newbery Honor book. It heartily deserves both awards, and I am thrilled that the award announcements have suddenly plunged the book into national prominence.
The words are exquisite, lyrical and moving. It does not suffer from the problem I usually find with verse novels, which is that it ends up being prose with lots of line breaks. These are truly poems. Most of them could be taken out of context and still make sense as poems in and of themselves.
The themes and values of the characters are excellent as well. The people know that they must fight for their freedom, but they find a way of doing so that does not involve killing or hatred. Rosa, Jose and Silvia are intent on their freedom, but they are also passionately convinced that it is healing, not harm, that is of the most important. Rosa was a real person, and there is evidence that she truly did heal the enemy soldiers as well as her own fallen countrymen.
The historical fiction aspect of the story is fascinating: Rosa grows from a slave to a freed slave to a rebel who heals rather than fighting. I have seen some criticisms that the age of the reader is in question, but I disagree. The book starts with Rosa as a young girl, and later, after she has become an adult, introduces another child character for the reader to relate to. Any historical fiction spanning thirty years makes it necessary for the characters to age over time. The only change I would have made to the book is to end it with Cuba gaining independence at last, instead of only mentioning it in the footnotes. It would have been more triumphant, and would only have extended the time period another three years.