Margarita Engle has done it again with Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. This is a powerful story to immediately add to your collection. When I enthusiastically shared the gist of this story with fellow librarians, one of them said, "Wow! Where does she get this tuff?"
ROTFL Okay, readers, let’s acknowledge that to many of us Cuban history is not our strong point, but we know Margarita Engle didn’t just make this up. The historians I asked knew about the ships full of Jewish and European refugees that were denied entry to the U.S. and Canada. They knew that some went to Cuba, but they didn’t know about the anguish many suffered as they waited aboard these crowded ships hoping they’d be released to set foot on safe soil.
Some of the ships were received in Cuba, others were rejected and their passengers were then returned to Germany to be sent to their death in concentration camps. I had no idea that Cuba accepted 65,000 Jewish refugees from 1938 to 1939, the same number the entire U.S. took in. This is not a moment for Americans to be proud. When we learn of the persecution and struggling that followed these refugees as they fled the Nazi regime, we cannot take pride in revisiting how they were rejected, used, and tormented.
Listen to the opening of this book from 13 year old Daniel’s point of view and you’ll see this historical novel in verse is special in a much different way from The Poet Slave of Cuba and The Surrender Tree:
Last year in Berlin,
on the Night of Crystal,
my grandfather was killed
while I held his hand.
Later in Cuba David speaks to us:
I was taught that there are four
kinds of people in the world –
wise, wicked, simple,
and those who do not yet know
how to ask questions.
I was taught that questions
are just as important as answers.
I was a child when I learned these things.
Now I am old, but I still know
that life’s questions
outnumber life’s answers.
Carnival joy is one of my questions –
where does it come from,
this season of musical contentment,
even though I have lived so long
and lost so much?
The verses in this story chronicle young Daniel’s journey from Germany in June, 1939, to Cuba in April, 1942. Along the way we hear from David, another immigrant and refugee, and from Paloma, the daughter of a greedy Cuban merchant.
Engle continues to create characters that change through the course of the story told in verse. Their clear distinct voices share their pain and their growth. The details of Cuban life add depth and spice to the tale. Special treats like oranges and joyful holidays like Carnival are juxtaposed with the sadness and despair of Daniel’s acceptance of his new life in Cuba.
Stories like Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba are my favorites to recommend to students. Some readers will be inspired to research further. Some readers will be moved emotionally. For others, this will provide a glimpse of history that is seldom shared in mainstream America.
This story will impact you and linger long after you close the pages. I hope you will add it to your summer reading lists.