Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck is a beautifully written novel in verse, similar in many ways to her earlier book The Surrender Tree (click here for our review). Here again, Engle brings to life a lesser known period of Caribbean history through three distinct but intertwined stories: that of Quebrado; Naridó and Caucubú; and Ojeda and Talavera. While many of us are familiar with the history of Christopher Columbus, other stories of the conquest and colonization of the Americas are often overlooked. This book offers part of that missing perspective.
Set in the early 16th century, Hurricane Dancers tells the story of Quebrado, a young boy enslaved on a pirate ship after losing his Taíno mother and Spanish father. In learning about Quebrado’s sotry, we also hear the tales o fthose around him. Here we learn about Alonso de Ojeda, a contemporary of Columbus, who sailed with him on his second voyage to the Americas. Ojeda became famous for his brutality, both in his settlement of Hispaniola and his later conquest of South America. Yet, in Engle’s book we find Ojeda the injured captive of Spanish pirate Bernardino de Talavera. We learn that Talavera is an impoverished conquistador. Once awarded a profitable land grant, Talavera literally worked his indigenous slaves to death, resulting in the loss of all his wealth. In order to avoid debtor’s prison, Talavera steals a ship and takes to the seas. And then, on this ship, we are introduced to Quebrado. The sailors name him Quebrado, meaning a broken one, because he is half islander and half outsider. Enslaved and beaten, Quebrado is used by Talavera as a translator because he speaks both Spanish and Taíno. Quebrado eventually gains his freedom when a hurricane sinks the ship and kills most of the crew. After the crash, Quebrado is saved and befriend by Naridó, a Taíno fisherman. Naridó is in love with Caucubú, the daughter of the tribe’s leader who is to be given away in an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, in an interesting twist of fate, Talavera and Ojeda find themselves alive, albeit severely injured, and are forced to depend on each other to survive and find help.
In the prose-poetry that follows, Ojeda and Talavera find themselves among the same villagers who have taken in Quebrado. Banished to an alligator infested swamp, the two Spaniards seem to have the nine lives of a cat, surviving even this. Quebrado is soon banished as well and sent away from his new found home. Ultimately, Quebrado must find the courage to banish the two from the island forever.
Hurricane Dancers is one of those books with limitless possibilities for classroom use, appropriate across grade levels for read aloud, independent reading or novel study. If you’re hesitant to use novel in verse in your classroom, don’t be. I’ll admit I had my doubts before I read Engle’s Surrender Tree. But I, along with the other teachers in our monthly book group, loved it. The novelty of this style will be interesting to students not familiar with it. It’s also a much simpler read. There’s no complicated dialogue to keep track of or dense pages to wade through. Each page is a poem written from one character’s perspective which makes it a great book to be read out loud—especially if you have enough copies for each student to have their own. Then, students can take turns reading the lines of the different characters as if it was a play. The simple style won’t intimidate struggling readers, but the engaging plot and beautiful descriptive imagery will catch the attention of all of your students. Booklist writes in its review, “Engle distills the emotion in each episode with potent rhythms, sounds, and original, unforgettable imagery. Linked together, the poems capture elemental identity questions and the infinite sorrows of slavery and dislocation. . .” It would be a perfect book to teach elements of literary or poetic analysis. Many students can struggle to understand or analyze the symbolism or imagery of a short poem, but within the context of an entire novel, these things can be easier to uncover and understand. The simple but beautiful imagery will paint amazing pictures in the minds and imaginations of young and old readers alike.
But, it’s not just a book for reading or language arts classes. It could be quite powerful in a social studies or history course. Hurricane Dancers could easily be integrated into any study on early exploration and conquest of the Caribbean and South America. An amazing unit could be put together using Engle’s novel along with Michael Dorris’ Morning Girl, and the teacher’s guide Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years published by Rethinking Schools. (For more of what we’ve written on Rethinking Columbus click here, here, or here). Quite often our classroom resources focus on the point of view of Columbus or other explorers, but rarely do they give voice to the indigenous groups who inhabited the land or even name those groups. This is not the case with Hurricane Dancers. Engle’s “Author’s Note” at the end provides a wealth of information on the background of the historical figures mentioned in the book. Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years also has a number of great resources written specifically about the Taíno. While Engle’s book doesn’t focus on current events, it could be an excellent resource for those teaching about more contemporary Social Studies issues, like child slavery. We featured another novel in October, The Queen of Water, that, if paired with Hurricane Dancers could provide an excellent means for studying both historical and contemporary issues around child slavery.
If nothing else, it is a moving story of a young boy’s journey to redemption. His final message is one that I believe we hope all our students understand and accept for themselves: “I no longer feel like Quebrado, a broken place. . .I am free of all those shattered ways of seeing myself. I am whole” (p. 133).