illustrator: Edel Rodriguez
Margarita Engle’s parents met in 1947, when her father, an artist from the US, visited the Museo Romántico in Trinidad de Cuba, her mother’s hometown; “it was love at first sight.” Although they didn’t speak each other’s language, he proposed marriage, and she said yes.
Margarita grew up between two languages and two cultures. In this memoir in free verse, she describes her childhood trips to Cuba, her father’s Jewish family, and her life in the United States where—as “a misfit bookworm” and half-Cuban during the Cold War—she never fit in with her peers in Southern California. She describes the irony of a mother cut off from her family by the revolution, also hounded by US government agents, and shunned by neighbors who suspect they are Communist spies. As a child, she doesn’t understand, “Why are Cubans suddenly spoken of / as enemies? / Not so long ago, Mami’s island / was only known for music / and sugar.”
Enchanted Air offers a nuanced perspective on the conflict between the United States and Cuba that never loses sight of the personal, the perspective of a young girl seeking her voice and an understanding of who she is. Bullies terrify her; so does riding her first horse in Mexico, even though she has pestered her parents for years to let her ride a horse. When she skips grades in school because of her academic ability, she gets in over her head with a fast crowd of outcasts—the only classmates to accept her: “After I race away from that scary / first kiss, I have no hope for love, / or even like.” She is eleven at the time; the boy is 16. Her older friends drop out of school one by one—pregnant, drug addicted, on public assistance.
Edel Rodriguez’s beautiful cover art evokes the early work of Pablo Picasso, a disembodied face fused with a bird in flight—an image of the magic within imagination. Air, wings, and flight figure prominently in many of the poems. When Margarita’s grandmother has to return to Cuba, she wishes she had “paper wings” to join her; the years before the revolution are dangerous times, with “vultures, too, circling / like a wheel / of darkly winged / questions.”
Young Margarita finds her place as a poet, a traveler of the world, and a keen observer of history, culture and her society’s many paradoxes. How does this child of a Cuban mother end up with a well-used passport, a “disturbing document / that specifically states / it cannot be used for travel / to Cuba”? As in her many historical and biographical works, Engle’s poetry in this memoir resonates with language that is beautiful, fresh, and emotionally true. The back matter, while not comprehensive, offers valuable context for the poems. The final page excerpts José Martí’s Versos Sencillos in Spanish and English, showing Engle as a literary heir of this great Cuban poet.
Enchanted Air has won a number of accolades, including the 2016 Pura Belpré Award, the 2016 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award, and it was a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. All of these are well deserved and Enchanted Air is highly recommended for both middle grade and young adult readers.
This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.