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The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez
Historical fiction

The Great Divide

by Cristina Henríquez

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Quick take

This novel weaves a complex tapestry out of the diverse human lives involved in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International


  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Underdog



A powerful novel about the construction of the Panama Canal, casting light on the unsung people who lived, loved, and labored there.

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.

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Content warning

This book contains a scene that depicts miscarriage.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Great Divide.
The Great Divide


Somewhere off the Pacific coast of Panamá, in the calm blue water of the bay, Francisco Aquino sat alone in his boat. He had built the boat himself from the trunk of a cedar tree that he had stripped and carved with nothing but a stone adze and a crooked knife, whittling it and smoothing it, running his hand over every surface and curve, whittling and smoothing again, until he had fashioned that single tree trunk into what he believed was the most magnificent boat on the whole of the sea.

Francisco sat holding his paddle across his lap. His knees were bent and his bare feet were flat on the floor of the hull next to his reel and a wooden bucket that he used to bail water out of the boat when too much got in. His net hung off the side.

Every day but Sunday, Francisco rose before dawn and walked to the shore and untied his boat from its post. He rowed through the waves and, when he was out far enough, he secured the knots on his net and let the net drop. Then he rowed again, slowly, listening to the water hiccup each time he pulled the paddle up through the surface and slipped it back in. He had to advance at just the right speed to create drag for the net. Too slow and the fish were not fooled. Too fast and they fled. It was a delicate balance, but Francisco had trawled in these waters for most of his life, and he knew what to do.

A breeze came from the east and ruffled the brim of his hat. Gently, the boat rocked side to side. He waited for the best moment to start. The water would tell him when. Francisco nudged the bucket with his foot, then nudged it back. Birds swooped overhead. He opened his hands and studied his rough, calloused skin. Once, a long time ago on a rainy afternoon speckled with sun, Esme had taken his hands in hers and turned his palms up. There is a map, she had told him, in the lines of your hands. A map of what? he had asked. And what had she said? He always tried to remember, but he never could.

Francisco folded his fingers into fists and sighed. The ocean spread endlessly around him, glittering in the early sun. In the quiet, his boat listed and swayed.

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Why I love it

My YouTube feed is full of video explainers of modern engineering marvels. I love exploring the intricacies of industrial systems but also the social and political forces that make them possible (and sometimes controversial). The Panama Canal is a remarkable construction that seems quasi-miraculous, but its construction was a unique and tumultuous all-too-human drama. In her sweeping and polyphonic new novel The Great Divide, Cristina Henríquez depicts several fictional lives that capture how this massive development came into being. She had me gripped from the first page.

The construction of the Panama Canal meant something different to everyone caught in its orbit. To some men from Panama and abroad it was a job. To many small towns along its unfolding route it was a threat. To other people it presented an offer of freedom and adventure. To still others it was a ticking potential public health bomb, spreading disease and other invasive species. This novel burrows intimately into each of these points of view, offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of this world-remaking event as it unfolds in real time.

It is stunning how effectively Henríquez is able to inhabit different voices and cultural milieus. With just a line, she can reveal the cavernous depths of a character or abruptly overturn a reader’s assumptions about another’s motives. For any readers who look to historical fiction for an immersive and transportive experience, look no further!

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