BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle

Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle on BookDragonIn case you’ve missed the recent headlines, Cuba has been in the news a lot: “We are separated by 90 miles of water, but are brought together through shared relationships and the desire to promote a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba,” a recent official White House foreign policy statement reads. “President Obama is taking action to cut loose the anchor of failed policies of the past, and to chart a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba that will engage and empower the Cuban people.”

As for literature by and about Cuban and Cuban Americans, I can’t even name a handful of writers: Cristina García and Reinaldo Arenas come immediately to mind, as does the latest Very Important Awards-darling Rachel Kushner (although I admit I haven’t been able to finish any of her titles, oh well). My go-to Cuban American favorite, however, is Margarita Engle, and wow (!) does she provide an important history lesson here.

How many of you knew this? [I had no clue!] “Despite tragedies and scandals, Cuba accepted 65,000 Jewish refugees from 1938 to 1939, the same number that was taken in by the much larger United States during that same period,” Engle writes in her ending “Historical Note.” “Overall, Cuba accepted more Jewish refugees than any other Latin American nation.” Clearly, the hapa Ukrainian Jewish Cuban American Engle is a Newbery Honoree for good reason; she’s also the first Latina/o author of such lauded ilk, with countless other distinctions, awards, prizes, as well.

“The situations and major events in this book are factual. The characters are entirely imaginary,” Engle explains. Rendered in haunting, exacting, spare, free verse, Engle’s protagonists become immediately real on the page. In June 1939, Daniel, just 13, arrives in Havana Harbor on a German ship, having been turned away from New York and Canada, and is finally allowed to disembark with other refugees. He is the last of his family: “My parents chose to save me / instead of saving themselves.” Frightened, wary, desperate, he is slow to trust anyone; his only dream is to be reunited with his missing family.

Paloma, a 12-year-old local girl who befriends the refugees, mourns the loss of her runaway mother and hides the greedy, inhuman secrets of her wealthy father. David, who arrived from the Ukraine long ago, knows “what it means / to be a refugee / without a home.” Daniel realizes David “is still Russian, still Jewish, / but he talks like a completely / new sort of person, / one without memories / to treasure.” The three create new bonds by listening, teaching, accepting, and nurturing one another. They reach out to others in need, including a Jewish woman and her Christian husband who come under threat when non-Jewish Germans are suspected of being Nazi spies.

In the modern U.S. imagination, our long-estranged Caribbean neighbor has been associated with denial and human rights abuses. Title by title, Engle shows us otherwise, from the 19th-century Poet Slave of Cuba, to 19th-century Cuban women’s rights pioneers in The Firefly Letters, to the 1896 fight for independence from colonial Spain in The Surrender Tree. Take my word: You couldn’t choose a better guide to get to know the real Cuba.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009



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