Another significant voice in the book is Lieutenant Death. He, too, is based on a historical figure, a slavehunter, although Engle creates a particular vendetta between him and Rosa, whereas all that is known for sure is his commitment to disrupting the resistance and recapturing slaves. Either narrator could say “sometimes war feels like just one more form of slavery”; either could say “one battle leads to another”.
As the years pass, Captain-General Weyler’s efforts to control the populace take the form of “reconcentration camps”. (These play a significant role in a later book by Engle, The Wild Book, based on her grandmother’s life, because her parents were confined to one of these camps and stripped of their possessions.) These camps were officially formed in 1896 and would later influence infrastructures in the Boer War and in the Second World War.
In her grandmother’s story, words and stories have a particular importance from the start, because as a young girl, Fefa copes with “word blindness” (dyslexia) and has to work very hard to develop the knack of reading. But throughout Engle’s work, language and storytelling plays a powerful role. In The Surrender Tree, eleven-year-old Silvia takes comfort in the legendary stories about Rosa’s bravery, and Rosa takes comfort in the words of José Marti, especially admiring his poem about knowing the “strange names of flowers”.
In Lion Island, Antonio Chuffat is a “warrior of words” even from a young age. The historical background of this story is vast. In the 1840s, a quarter million men were shipped to Cuba and Peru from China, to work in the sugarcane fields alongside the African slaves. Even when some slaves were freed in Cuba, in 1868, the populace continued to struggle for independence from Spain, and there were still a large number of Asian refugees (including 5,000 from the United States, who faced discrimination and unrest on the west coast of America).