The blatant racism and horrific conditions surrounding the monstrous undertaking of the construction of the Panama Canal are told through the voices of characters such as Mateo, a 14-year-old
Cuban who lies about his age in order to be able to work on the project; Anita, a young, female herb collector/seller; Henry, a Jamaican hoping to send money back home; and various U.S. historical figures, such as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Engle’s devastating free-verse novel eloquently lays out the racial injustice between the whites and Europeans who acted in more supervisory capacities, and those of color who had not only to deal with deplorable and dangerous working conditions, but also segregation and horribly inadequate living conditions. Especially compelling are sections containing poems from the voices of the jungle flora and fauna who also had to endure this environmentally disruptive project. There is hope, though, as Henry and Mateo become friends “Then we sit/ together, / medium- dark/ and dark-dark, / as if/ the bizarre/ Canal Zone rules/ did not/ matter. / They don’t.” In the epilogue, a dictional letter written after the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition mentions that although there are plenty hailing this new “manmade Wonder of the World,” no mention whatsoever is made of what the “silver people” endured. “No one cares because no one knows,” it says. Well, thanks to Engle’s elegant and affecting novel, now more will know. Included are a historical note and selected references.
Eric Barbus, San Francisco PL