Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
We have all heard of the Panama Canal and how it made trade from East to West so much easier. It truly opened up the world. What I have never really thought about is how it was created. The canal was finished in August 1914 so think about how it must have been dug. Yep, by hand. And who did the digging? If you guessed people of color you’d be dead right. This marvelous novel in verse is done beautifully by Margarita Engle whose work is always outstanding. She follows Mateo, a Cuban boy barely into his teens, who left Cuba to escape his abusive father. Working on a canal and getting paid for it seemed a great idea. Mateo soon realizes that he signed on for much more than he originally thought. Mountains had to be moved, literally, and men from all over the Caribbean were the ones whose backbreaking work made the dream come alive. It was dangerous, the living conditions abominable, the pay was horrible, and the men were subject to yellow fever and malaria. The amount of men who died over the course of its construction was astounding. Mateo meets a young girl named Anita who knows how to use the herbs in the jungle to help those who are sick. Henry is another man of color who works side by side with Mateo who eventually runs off into the jungle to escape the contract everyone had to sign when they started work. The poems are well-crafted and the language beautiful. This is a story of the divide between dark and light people and the brutality and misery that went into the building of the Panama Canal. It was fascinating reading and a joy the whole way through. It’s perfect for middle school and up.