Cover of Silver People, by Margarita Engle. A Hispanic man carrying a shovel grins at a Native woman with a basket on her head.

About the Book

Title: Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal
Published: 2014

Cover Story: Got a Little Captain in You?
Drinking Buddy: ¡Cuba Libre!
Testosterone Level: Welcome to the Jungle
Talky Talk: Can You Dig It?
Bonus Factors: Poetic Novel
Bromance Status: My Friend Died of Malaria in the Middle of the Panamanian Jungle, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Cover Story: Got a Little Captain in You?

While Mateo and Anita look pretty much exactly like they’re described in the book, this whole thing smacks of a retro Rum ad.

The Deal:

1906. The French have given up on this hopeless jungle expedition, leaving the Americans try to succeed where they failed (a scenario which will play out again in sixty years). Everyone’s going to Panama: Jamaican laborers, American engineers, European fortune hunters, unemployed Spanish soldiers, not to mention the natives who are already there. Their mission: connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The work crews are divided into two teams: those paid in gold, and those paid in silver. The pay scale has been painstaking worked out, based on seniority, skills, the labor market, and most importantly, whether you’re white.

Drinking Buddy: ¡Cuba Libre!

Two pints of beer cheersing

Since this is a novel in verse, there are about a zillion points of view, but there are four main characters.

Mateo, Cuba. With his father suffering from PSTD from the Spanish-American war and the job marked glutted by down and out soldiers, Mateo pretends to be a Spaniard and hops a ship for Panama. He quickly discovers that laying railroad tracks through the jungle is not as glamorous as the training videos made it out to be. He’s quickly recruited by a gang of Spanish anarchists to be a messenger boy for their subversive literature. He resents the Americans and their fancy houses and dining halls.

Henry, Jamaica. Part time boxer and full time digger, he resents the Spaniards and their fancy tin plates and stools. He begins to realize that maybe his bosses don’t have his best interests at heart, when he’s buried alive in a mudslide and they rush out to save the steam shovel.

Anita, Panama. A native herbalist, who collects plants from the jungle to make cures (and quack potions for the gold people, who will buy anything). She kind of takes a shine to young Mateo.

Augusto, Puerto Rico. An American-educated geologist, he’s one of the gold people. He hires Mateo as his assistant.  Augusto discovers that his fancy doctorate and education mean little to people who can’t see past his non-white skin.

Testosterone Level: Welcome to the Jungle

Imagine living by your wits in the untamed wilderness, nothing but a machete and your fists to defend yourself against the animals and bandits you encounter.

Yeah, Anita is pretty badass.

Plus there’s Henry and Mateo boxing on payday, Henry getting buried alive, Mateo getting roughed up by the cops, and Theodore Roosevelt, the manliest of all US Presidents.

Talky Talk: Can You Dig It?

While this book was kind of heavy handed with the haves vs. have nots message, it did have some nice characters. And the poetry style means there are only about three words on every page. A quick read that doesn’t make you memorize a lot of dates and cities.

Bonus Factor: Poetic Novel

Rik Mayall as Rick, the People's Poet, in The Young Ones

This is the kind of poetry that tells a story, not the kind that rhymes. This means we get to hear from all kinds of different viewpoints, including the jungle animals and trees. Spoiler alert: they’re not on board with the canal thing.

Bromance Status: My Friend Died of Malaria in the Middle of the Panamanian Jungle, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Okay, 25,000 laborers died in the effort, but it secured the United States as a world power. And it got us this book! So it was kind of worth it.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received neither silver nor gold (nor rum) for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.