Monday, August 12, 2013



It's the end of hurricane season in Florida and soon students will be going back to school, hitting the books.  As many history classes will begin with cursory study of Native Americans before launching into age of conquistadors, may I recommend you take an evening before going back to school to read Margarita Engle's Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck.  I found this book on the National Council of Social Studies list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.  For it's description of characters, subsistence, and emphasis on diversity in the Caribbean, it certainly earns it's notable title.

Unlike most YA historical fiction I've read, this story is told in poetic verse, "I listen to the song of creaking planks, the roll and sway of clouds in the sky, wild music, and thunder, the groans of wood, a mourning moan as this old ship remembers her true self, her tree self, rooted and growing, alive, on shore (p.3)." The short cast of characters includes: main protagonist Quebrado, young boy of Taino and Spanish descent who is a slave aboard the ship; Bernardino de Talavera, minor conquistador who Engle dubs the first pirate of the Caribbean; and Alonso de Ojeda, cruel conquistador who sailed with Columbus and also becomes Talavera's captive.

The three intersect on a pirate ship that is not just a setting, but a character.  As readers of fiction know, the origin of characters matter--give you essential back story.  Underwater archaeologists make use of this fact by studying boat building as a way to further understand shipwrecks.  In a previous post (Monday Morning Book Review: Shipwreck) I praised the authors for starting their story where maritime research begins, at the boat works.   While we tend to focus on the science and construction of boat building, Hurricane Dancers gives a poetic alternative perspective of this very process: "memories of bearded men who capture tree-spirits, and turn them into wooden ships that serve as floating cages (59)." 


In addition to boat building, the book also gives multiple perspectives on subsistence.  Characters meet their basic need for food by foraging, hunting, early agriculture, and aquaculture.  Aboard the ship Quebrado yearns for food from his life before slavery: "I am eager to plant yams, peanuts, and papayas, and pluck hollow gourds from tangled vines to make musical maraca rattles.  I long to eat pineapples that taste like golden sunlight, instead of dry ship's bread, and salted beef, and sorrow (p. 58)."  On land, he also hunts according to his custom, "on the slopes of a mountain...grabbing the slender trunks of trembling saplings, and shaking them to make iguanas fall.  Then I roast the giant lizards, listening as branches whisper and sing in a gentle breeze (61)."

Aquaculture is another strategy demonstrated in the book.  A Ciboney Indian fisherman describes his actions in verse: "I work alone, catching silvery marsh fish in tapered baskets, chasing swift river fish into stone traps, and wrapping the sea's great gold-belly fish in nets that fly out of the waves like wings (60)."  As an archaeologist I appreciated the description of artifacts we find in wet-site environments: fishing weirs (traps in estuaries), net gauges and weights, and of course fish bones and scales. 

As much as I enjoyed the accuracy of subsistence, I had a hard time digesting information on the pirates.  Archaeologists are generally skeptical of pirates and try and steer the public away from the perception of them as swashbuckling heroes.  Pirates were in historical times what terrorists are today, not a subject to take lightly.  It's also difficult archaeologically to determine if a shipwreck was ever a pirate ship.  The same hardware, tools, and personal objects found on board a merchant or naval ship are the same as those found on so called pirate ships.  I wanted to know more about Talavera and vet him has an historical figure, but came up short.  Searching on the internet, most of the pages came up in Spanish.  The only article in English was Washington Irving's (1831:83) description of Talavera as "one of the loose, heedless adventurers who abounded in Santo Domingo."

Although I wasn't able to verify Talavera as an accurate historical figure, the search brought about new questions: because the sources are in Spanish, is he an obscure figure in general or just to Americans and English speakers?  Or is his vagueness intended to demonstrate the gray scale from Quebrado as a fictional character to Ojeda as a more thoroughly researched historical figure?  Perhaps Talavera can serve as a caution for readers to remain critical in their thinking and further explore alternative tellings of history. He does serve the purpose to convey historical information, such as his rant on Amerigo Vespucci as, "just a merchant on one my of ships....the true honor of claiming this vast wilderness still rightful belongs to me.  Someday, all maps and charts will proclaim the Alonsos, not the Americas (p. 21)!" 

In addition to NCSS's notable listing, Hurricane Dancers also won the Pura Belpre Honor Book Award that honors a "Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  As Florida continues to commemorate 500 years since Juan Ponce de Leon's voyage along the coast in 1513 and the City of St. Augustine marks 450 years since it's founding by Pedro Menendez in 1565, I will keep the story of Hurricane Dancers close at heart.  Quebrado, as a blend of Taino and Spanish blood, reminds us that the early 16th century was more diverse than American's typically understand. 

For celebration of that diversity and immersing yourself in the eye of the 500th/450th storms, I highly recommend this book.

Text: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff
Cover image and excerpts: Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2011.

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