The Great Divide

Written by Cristina Henriquez
Review by Sarah Johnson

The Great Divide is the epic novel of the Panama Canal’s construction you didn’t know you’d been missing. This major engineering feat of the early 20th century linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making international shipping more efficient, but its excavation caused untold hardships for Panama’s people. With this event as a backdrop, Henríquez brings together a large cast whose lives are transformed by it.

Among them are Ada Bunting, an enterprising young Barbadian woman who stows away aboard a steamer to Panama, hoping to earn enough money there to pay for surgery for her ill sister back home. Omar Aquino, a fisherman’s son, seeks adventure and community in signing on as a laborer for the canal, but his decision provokes his father, who hates seeing his country torn up by outsiders, to give him the silent treatment. A caring woman with botanical expertise, Marian Oswald has accompanied her scientist husband, John, from Tennessee in support of his dream of eradicating malaria but finds herself isolated and lonely.

The viewpoint is deliberately inclusive and moves from familiar perspectives to new ones with ease, introducing characters like Ada’s proudly independent mother in Barbados; the fishmonger Joaquín and wife Valentina, whose childhood home at Gatún is the rumored site of a proposed dam; and the Oswalds’ cook, Antoinette, who sends funds back to her children in Antigua. Henríquez’s style resembles Ken Follett’s in its smoothness and approachability, though her cast is more culturally diverse, the scope not as sprawling, and she avoids crazy coincidences in gathering the different threads together. The novel is a stellar example of how historical novels can bring lesser-known voices to the surface, emphasizing how every person has a story worth listening to.