An epic novel of the construction of the Panama Canal, casting light on the unsung people who lived, loved, and labored there, by Cristina Henríquez, acclaimed author of The Book of Unknown Americans
It is said that the canal will be the greatest feat of engineering in history. But first, it must be built. For Francisco, a local fisherman who resents the foreign powers clamoring for a slice of his country, nothing is more upsetting than the decision of his son, Omar, to work as a digger in the excavation zone. But for Omar, whose upbringing was quiet and lonely, this job offers a chance to finally find connection.
Ada Bunting is a bold sixteen-year-old from Barbados who arrives in Panama as a stowaway alongside thousands of other West Indians seeking work. Alone and with no resources, she is determined to find a job that will earn enough money for her ailing sister’s surgery. When she sees a young man—Omar—who has collapsed after a grueling shift, she is the only one who rushes to his aid.
John Oswald has dedicated his life to scientific research and has journeyed to Panama in single-minded pursuit of one goal: eliminating malaria. But now, his wife, Marian, has fallen ill herself, and when he witnesses Ada’s bravery and compassion, he hires her on the spot as a caregiver. This fateful decision sets in motion a sweeping tale of ambition, loyalty, and sacrifice.
Searing and empathetic,The Great Divide explores the intersecting lives of activists, fishmongers, laborers, journalists, neighbors, doctors, and soothsayers—those rarely acknowledged by history even as they carved out its course.
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World In Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories. She has been longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, The Oxford American, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Illinois.
“Cristina Henriquez gives us cause to celebrate with this sweeping novel. It speeds us into a wild world of adventure and danger, epic visions of the creation of the Panama Canal. There isn’t another book like it. A welcome return by one of our finest voices.”
— Luis Alberto Urrea, author of Good Night, Irene
"Against the backdrop of the construction of the Panama Canal, Cristina Henriquez’s commanding and fearless prose conducts us through the very depth of the Panamanian jungle, where young Ada and Omar fight bravely— for themselves, their families and their communities survival— in a rapidly changing world. Violent empire and volatile sickness combine for harrowing effect in this vivid novel that interrogates all that is sacrificed in the name of progress. By turns macabre and also truly joyful, The Great Divide left me with a powerful ache for forgotten histories that will not soon leave me." — Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming
"A gorgeous, sweeping epic that draws together a truly unforgettable cast of characters. I loved it."
— Ann Napolitano, author of Hello Beautiful
"Henríquez’s pitch-perfect novel has the feel of a classic." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The Great Divide is Cristina Henríquez’s novel reconstruction of the Panama Canal, a well-crafted and meticulously researched marriage of history and story.”
— Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
The Great Divide is a beautifully written novel that is, at first glance, about the construction of the Panama Canal, but really, it's about the people whose lives were changed in ways good and bad, by man's insatiable desire to conquer—land, other people, the frailties of the human body. The prose offers both intimacy and the expansiveness of a sprawling epic. From the first page to the last, I found myself deeply invested in each of the characters so full of want, so willing to do everything and anything to satisfy those yearnings." — Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women