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"The Great Divide" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Mar 7

In “The Great Divide,” a historical fiction must-read by Cristina Henríquez, readers are treated to an immersive story about the building of the Panama Canal, a book that’s both highly entertaining and informative. During the construction of the canal, people with abundant talents and interests, from many different countries, convened in Panama to capitalize on the opportunities offered there.

Workmen constructing the canal were subjected to long hours and backbreaking labor as shovel by shovel they broke apart the section of land that divided the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, “…the deepest cut an endeavor that would allow goods to be shipped between the oceans and negate vessels from having to sail around the southern-most tip of South America.”

The first main character we meet in the story is Francisco Aquino, a man steeped in the traditions of his native Panama, a simple human who draws peace from fishing for a living. The love of Francisco’s life, Esme, tragically dies after their son is born, leaving Francisco to raise Omar, their baby, on his own.

Francisco expects Omar will follow in his father’s footsteps, but Omar has a fear of water, and a solitary existence is not what he desires. Omar wants to be around people, to work alongside others and at age 17, the building of the canal calls to him. Without permission, he takes a job as a workman—a decision that drives a wedge between father and son, one that culminates in Francisco not speaking to Omar for months on end.

At his job, Omar is subjected to Miller, a driven canal boss who pushes his gang of men too hard, but Omar likes the company of his co-workers. Still he remains concerned about alienating the father he loves so much. When Omar suddenly becomes ill, and collapses on the street, Ada, a kind young woman attends to him, urging him to get to the hospital, which he does, having contracted malaria.

Ada is from Barbados, and has secreted away on a ship setting sail for Panama. Unbeknownst to her mother and sister, Ada goes to Panama to earn money for her sister, so she can have the life-saving surgery she needs. Once in Panama, Ada is hired as a helpmate in the home of John and Marian Oswald.

The couple from Tennessee have journeyed to Panama so John can help eradicate the dreaded malaria that afflicts so many. Far be it from Marian to object to this trip; she’s highly intelligent, having attended college for botany, and relishes adventure, unlike her husband, who has a static personality and pays his loving wife little attention. While Marian is passionate about many things, John is insecure and buries himself in work, a diligence that will eventually cost him what he holds most dear.

While Francisco, Omar, Ada, John and Marian are the major characters, other minor players add interest as the author takes us on interesting detours, providing details about fascinating humans whose lives were impacted in Panama, adding to the richness of a narrative that moves about in time. Henríquez also frequently projects in her novel, offering a glimpse into the future of a particular character, forecasts that prove gratifying.

“The Great Divide” is an atmospheric novel that provides a concrete sense of place, a book that initially moves at a leisurely pace, but once the characters are introduced becomes a page turner readers will want to immerse themselves in.

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