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The Great Divide


The Great Divide

In her fourth novel, THE GREAT DIVIDE, Cristina Henríquez tells a sweeping and moving story about one of the most impressive engineering achievements of the 20th century --- the construction of the Panama Canal --- and those whose lives were changed, for better or for worse, by this project that aimed to cut a continent in two.

The year is 1907, and people from around the world have descended on Panama to help carve the canal out of the jungle. Among them is 16-year-old Ada Bunting, a stowaway from Barbados who hopes to earn enough money to pay for her sick sister Millicent’s surgery. Also new to the chaotic Canal Zone is John Oswald, a scientist from Tennessee who dreams of becoming one of the men who will go down in history for vanquishing the scourge of malaria. He’s accompanied by his lonely, sensitive wife, Marian, who has set aside her own dreams (of a career, of children) to support her emotionally distant husband.

"Henríquez skillfully stitches together a compelling, interconnected tale made up of the stories of those people who are often forgotten by history, but whose experiences are no less important for their absence."

As Ada and the Oswalds adjust to life in a strange land, the native Panamanians must cope with an influx of foreigners. The newcomers aim to remake the country in their own image, opening up new businesses, renaming local landmarks and paving cobblestone streets, “as if their unruliness were in need of being smoothed out.” Francisco, a reticent fisherman, has little use for the Americans and their “delusional dream” that they can “break the spine” of the mountains and link the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. His curious teenage son, Omar, takes a different view. Seeking opportunity and excitement, he takes a job working in the Culebra Cut alongside immigrants from Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Martinique and other far-flung places. His choice to work on the canal leads to a serious rift with his father.

Less entranced than Omar by the potential of the canal is Valentina. When she learns that the entirety of her hometown of Gatún is to be relocated to make room for a dam, she is horrified. Valentina encourages the community to take action to stop the dam’s construction and save the place she loves. “Gatún was her…. Gatún was the place whose air she had breathed, whose dirt she had walked barefoot upon, whose streets she could follow blindfolded...the place that had made her,” she thinks, as she tries to convince her reluctant husband, Joaquin, to dedicate himself to the fight.

While the majority of the book takes place in Panama, the narrative occasionally shifts back to Barbados, where Ada’s mother, Lucille, reflects on her past, worries for Ada, and fights to find a way to save the ailing Millicent. “One of her girls gone and the other seeming as though she was preparing to leave in a different way,” she thinks as she sews one of her colorful dresses by firelight. “The thought that she could well lose them both terrified her.”

THE GREAT DIVIDE is a collection of moments like this, as characters navigate the challenges and joys of everyday life. They face poverty, grief, racism and violence. But there are also moments of profound connection and hope. Even characters who could be broadly painted as villains --- including Ada and Millicent’s absent father, the white owner of a sugar plantation --- are depicted with nuance and sensitivity.

If there’s a flaw in Henríquez’s approach, it’s that we sometimes don’t get to spend as much time as we might like with some of the characters, including the soft-spoken Millicent and the doomed Marian. But like Lucille with her dresses, which she expertly crafts out of salvaged fabric remnants, Henríquez skillfully stitches together a compelling, interconnected tale made up of the stories of those people who are often forgotten by history, but whose experiences are no less important for their absence.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on March 15, 2024

The Great Divide
by Cristina Henríquez

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0063291320
  • ISBN-13: 9780063291324