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The Surrender Tree

Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree

Margarita Engle

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The Surrender Tree Summary

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The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom is a historical novel for young adults written by Margarita Engle in 2008. The story is based on Rosario Castellanos Castellanos, a famous figure in Cuban history. Rosa is a freed slave who becomes a nurse in hiding as she helps the mambí rebels fight for independence from Spanish rule in mid-nineteenth-century Cuba. The Surrender Tree is informed by Engle’s own Cuban American background and stories she learned from her grandparents who survived internment in a Cuban reconcentration camp.

The Surrender Tree is written in free verse—poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter. The poems switch primarily between four perspectives: Rosa, her husband, José, a brutal slave hunter called Lieutenant Death, and a young girl named Silvia. In short, evocative lines of verse, Engle explores themes of justice, freedom, the effects of war, and the importance of compassion.

The novel is divided into five parts, covering the years 1850-1899 and following Rosa from childhood to adulthood. In the first section, titled “The Names of the Flowers,” Rosa is a little girl, growing up in slavery amidst the coffee groves and sugar cane fields of Cuba. She is called a “child-witch” since she spends her time with the healing women learning the names of plants and flowers and their curative properties. Rosa helps the women heal runaway slaves, or cimarrones, who have been recaptured. She often encounters the son of a slave hunter, a “boy with dangerous eyes” she thinks of as Teniente Muerte, or Lieutenant Death.



Lieutenant Death has been raised by his father to think of the slaves as sub-human. His father tells him to call Rosa just “little witch,” not “witch-girl” or she’ll think she’s human. Lieutenant Death watches his father collect the ears of slaves who resisted capture and turn them in for pesos. Lieutenant Death fears and dislikes Rosa. Rosa is unhappy when her owner loans her to the slave hunter. She must travel with him and Lieutenant Death as they raid the hidden villages of the cimarrones. Rosa heals the wounded slaves but is powerless to free them. She reflects that “Hatred must be / a hard thing to learn.”

The second part of the book, “The Ten Years War,” begins in 1868. Rural plantation owners rebel against Spanish rule, burning their fields and towns. They also free their slaves. Former slave owners now fight alongside former slaves against the Spanish Army. Rosa suddenly finds herself a free woman. She wonders, “Can it be true that freedom only exists / when it is a treasure, / shared by all?” Rosa is also at a mental crossroads. She decides to do her part and fight with “flowers and leaves” instead of weapons, healing people in her own private war against death.

Now free, Rosa meets José Francisco Varona, who is also a freed slave and a nurse. They fall in love and get married, dedicating themselves to “healing the wounds of slavery, / and the wounds of war.” They join the mambí rebels, treating injuries and illnesses. Rosa’s healing abilities, along with her compassion, are now legendary and make her a target of the Spanish forces.
Rosa and José must hide in the forest and work secretly. The Spanish Empire does not honor the freedom of any slaves who received it from a rebel owner, and the slave hunters are still active. Lieutenant Death has a personal vendetta against Rosa and hunts her relentlessly. He is injured while stalking her, and Rosa heals him.



Captain General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, a Spanish officer, also wants to kill Rosa, the “witch,” to keep her ear in a jar to symbolize that slave owners can’t free their slaves without Spain’s approval, and to show that the rebel cause is doomed. Weyler orders all Cuban peasants to leave their farms to enter reconcentration camps, or they will be killed. Conditions in the camps are dire: there is not enough food and people begin to starve and die from illnesses. Many attempt to flee into the jungles. José and Rosa work ceaselessly, but they are exhausted, and José worries, “who will heal us?”

The period 1878-1880 brings “The Little War.” Rosa speculates “The Little War? / How can there be / a little war—are some deaths / smaller than others / leaving mothers / who weep / a little less?”

The “War of Independence” takes place from 1895-1898. During this time, the United States becomes interested in Cuba and gets involved in the conflict when the American ship, the Maine, is blown up by the Spanish Army in a Cuban harbor. We also meet Silvia, an eleven-year-old girl whose family was sent to the reconcentration camps. Silvia is now an orphan, having lost all her family members to starvation and disease. Silvia knows about Rosa, who once healed her grandmother. Silvia believes Rosa is her only hope, and she escapes the reconcentration camp to learn healing techniques from her. Rosa and José take Silvia in and Rosa teaches her to be a nurse.



“The Surrender Tree” is the final section of the book and refers to the actual tree in Santiago, Cuba, where Spanish forces finally surrender to the United States. While Rosa, José, and Silvia are glad that the Spanish are gone, they are disappointed that Cuba is still not independent; now it is under United States rule. Jose comments, “We can only watch from far away / as the Spanish flag is lowered / and the American flag glides upward. / Our Cuban flag / is still forbidden.” Still, they feel hopeful. Silvia says, “Peace is not the paradise / I imagined, but it is a chance / to dream…”

The Surrender Tree won numerous awards, including a Newbery Honor award and a Pura Belpré award, given to a Latino or Latina author whose work best portrays and celebrates the Latino culture in a work of literature for children and youth.
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