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Review of Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal
by Margarita Engle
Middle School    Houghton    260 pp.
3/14    978-0-544-10941-4    $17.99    g

Of the thousands of people from around the world who helped build the Panama Canal, the voices of the dark-skinned workers have been seldom heard. Known as the “silver people” because they were paid in silver (lighter-skinned workers were paid in gold), they got little respite from backbreaking labor, certainly not in the horrendous living quarters to which they were assigned. In melodic verses, Engle offers the voices of three such workers: Mateo, a fourteen-year-old Cuban boy escaping his violent father; Henry, a Jamaican man who wants a better life for his family; and Augusto, a Puerto Rican artist hired as a map maker. We also hear from Anita, a local girl who provides an account of how the canal work is changing the landscape. Interspersed are occasional echoes from birds, trees, frogs, insects, and the ever-present howler monkeys (“WE HATE YOUR BOOM / WE FEAR YOUR BLAST…GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY…”) as well as cameo appearances by historical figures such as chief engineer George Goethals and President Theodore Roosevelt. Taken together, they provide an illuminating picture of the ecological sacrifices and human costs behind a historical feat generally depicted as a triumph. If there’s any triumph at all here, it’s in the relationships among the four principal players who survive and ultimately thrive on a newly formed island in the middle of the canal, an island that was once a mountaintop.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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