Silver People by Margarita Engle
University of Queensland Press, 2014. ISBN 9780702253294.
(Age: Young adult) Recommended. Historical. Panama Canal. Environment. Rainforests. Silver People is skilfully concise and the characters have an intimate, personal feel. Written in non-rhyming verse style Margarita Engle, a Newbery Honour Award winning author, has woven a superb story about the digging of the Panama Canal.
The labourers for the huge project were segregated by country of origin or the colour of their skin, into specific work groups. Their living arrangements were determined the same way. Toiling in appalling conditions in searing heat, landslides and tropical illnesses were a constant threat, whilst digging the Canal with very basic tools. Many spoke languages other than English, making communication difficult and following orders confusing.
Those in charge, white Americans, French and Dutch were paid the most and lived in relative luxury. Secondary to them were the 'gold' people, Spaniards, Greeks and Italians, and those considered the 'lowest' were paid a few pieces of silver. Thus they were deemed the 'silver' people, Jamaicans, Barbadians and Haitians.
Mateo is just such a boy. Born in Cuba, and Spanish-speaking, the fourteen year-old escapes from his hopeless situation with his violent father and joins a labour train, bound for Panama. He is expected to work like a man for his measly wage. However, he befriends Henry and the mysterious but sympathetic forest-dweller, Anita, teenagers like himself. Augusto, an artist, takes an interest in Mateo and encourages his budding sketching talent.
Surrounded by the beauty of the Panamanian forest, the howls and screeching of monkeys and jungle birds, Mateo and his friends eventually find much-craved peace and love in their new home.
Silver People is a quick-read, with a strong visual layer throughout the language Ms Engle has judiciously crafted.
Editor's note: Teacher's notes are available from the publisher.