Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, by Margarita Engle (2014)

Paperback cover of Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, by Margarita Engle, 2014. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Author Margarita Engle.
The Panama Canal was one of the largest construction projects in the world. Originally begun by the French government, and then finished by the United States in 1914, the Canal cost some $375 million dollars, and many human lives. More than 5,000 workers died during the U.S. phase of construction, in addition to 22,000 workers who died during the French attempt. Margarita Engle’s 2014 novel Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, tells the story of the building of the Canal. Written in verse, it focuses on Mateo, a 14-year-old boy from Cuba who takes a job building the canal in order to escape an abusive father, Henry, who is from Jamaica, and Anita, a native Panamanian girl who sells herbs and medicines. 

The title Silver People comes from the racial stratification among those workers hired to build the Canal. White workers and engineers from the United States were paid in gold, while darker-skinned workers from the Caribbean countries were paid in silver. Workers were also housed in different places according to their skin color. Engle paints a vivid picture of the racial segregation among the workers, and the resentment that it brought.

Engle does an excellent job of capturing the voices of the different characters, and she even has sections of the book that are narrated by the trees, or by howler monkeys in the rainforest jungle. It’s an interesting technique that adds to the picture of a landscape being radically transformed in the service of commerce. 

Silver People is written for young adults, and I would recommend it to anyone, youth or adult, who is interested in learning more about the construction of the Panama Canal.

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