Silver People - A Tale from the Panama Canal
University of Queensland Press, 2014
Margarita Engle

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

Author Margarita Engle’s lyrical verse novel captures the fear, desperation and exploitation of the Caribbean workers who risked their lives from malaria, yellow fever and landslides to build the Panama Canal from 1904–1914. Why the title? The Panama Canal project was strictly racially segregated with most Caribbean workers paid in silver while their North Americans and European counterparts were paid in gold.

This historical novel has multiple voices. There is Mateo, the main character who, despite the hardships of the Panama Canal, finds fulfilment as an artist capturing the rare biodiversity of the rainforest. There is Henry, who feels totally humiliated by the apartheid system that forces him to stand and eat like an “animal in a corral” while white workers sit in shady dining tents enjoying their “gold food and cool comfort”. There is the beautiful and strong Anita, the herb girl, who “walks around with a basket of leaves, flowers, roots, and twigs gracefully balanced on her head” and who is deeply connected to the forest and its wildlife.

The book vividly describes how workers were exploited, imprisoned, and subjected to police brutality if they dared protest against their poor wages, extremely dangerous work and horrendous living conditions.

The verse novel brilliantly evokes the intense beauty of the rainforest with its wondrous trees, toucans, monkeys, glass frogs, snakes and jaguars. We hear the creatures’ terror as they see their forest home logged, exploded and finally flooded.

The Panama Canal has been hailed as one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, allowing the passage of ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This verse novel illuminates the dark side of this feat — both in regard to the exploitation of workers and nature. Some of the world’s most pristine rainforests, with the rarest of species, were destroyed by this project. Its environmental consequences are still felt today. The novel questions whether “progress” gives humans the right to conquer, destroy, exploit and subdue wild nature.

Probably the most sobering section of the novel is the part that describes what can happen when Nature is treated with contempt. Some of the bored workers on the project:

throw goats and chickens down
into a river where crocodiles
thrash and writhe, fighting
for flesh, a cruel entertainment
for bored men.
The nurses explain that crocodiles
soon learn to expect food when they see
The ugly sport sends reptiles
swimming upstream to villages
where they hunt for children
(p. 134)

Is this a metaphor for the destruction of the Panama’s rainforests? Like the crocodiles, will Nature search out its own revenge against humanity for its destruction?

This book is available for borrowing from Federation Library.

Lesson ideas

Small group/pair discussion

1. How would you feel if you were a silver or gold person working on the Panama Canal?
2. What do you know about the animals, birds and living creatures that lived in the Panama rainforests?
3. How would you feel if you were an animal or bird or another living creature watching the Panama Canal being built?
4. Are projects like the Panama Canal project happening today?
5. What is more important — “progress” or destruction of the environment?

Suggestions for learning activities
1. Perform group readings of the verses accompanied by dramatic tableau.
2. Create posters inviting Caribbean to work on the Panama Canal.
3. Draw the birds, animals, birds, wildlife and other living creatures of the Panama rainforests
4. Imagine you are one of the historical figures listed in the book. Write your speech about why the Panama Canal is needed.
5. Write an environmental campaign speech saying why the Panama Canal project should be stopped.