The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

firefly-lettersCindy: I am so grateful for Margarita Engle’s recent books that shed light on Cuba’s history. The Poet Slave of Cuba (2006) and 2009’s Newbery Honor book The Surrender Tree were both excellent, but The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba ( Henry Holt, 2010) is my favorite to date due to its themes. Engle intertwines the stories of three women, all victims of their positions in a male-dominated world and illuminates the possibilities of equal rights for women. I’d never heard of Swedish suffragette Fredrika Bremer, who in the mid-1800s gave up a life of privilege to travel and write about lives trapped in poverty. She traveled to Cuba in 1851 hoping to write about the lush island. What she found in its traditions of slavery shocked her and is detailed in Engle’s verse here based on Bremer’s published letters. Fredrika’s experience on the island is aided by the translation and guidance of a young pregnant slave, Cecilia. The young daughter of the mansion where Fredrika stays, Elena, is enslaved by the traditions of the day. Young women are not allowed the freedom to leave the house unaccompanied by males, so it is Cecilia and Fredrika alone who enjoy the light of the fireflies on their evening explorations. Cecilia’s story documented in Bremer’s writings and fleshed out here. Elena is a fictionalized character.

I read this book months ago and yet the story and the poetry linger with me. I’d love a biography of Fredrika Bremer after reading about her online. She came from a wealthy family, but as a woman had no control over the money she inherited. She only controlled that which she earned as a writer. She traveled to the United States before Cuba and met Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others, and developed an anti-slavery stance. According to the Wikipedia article, I should be familiar with her–Mrs. March read from Bremer’s works to her four daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women! In the acknowledgments Engle writes “I am grateful that women no longer have to choose between writing and marriage.” Amen.

Elena

The hope chest is empty now,
but tonight I will begin
to fill it again.

I will stitch new flowers
beneath the moon
that shines in
through my window,
flying past the bars
along with fireflies
and hope.

I no longer cover my head.
I think of the moonlight
as friendly
and safe.

Lynn: While I appreciate poetry and even enjoy it at times, it is far from my first choice when choosing what book to curl up with next. I know, I know – I’m a Philistine for sure. Engle’s two previous verse novels fell squarely into my admire-and-glad-I-read-it-but-not-something-I’ll-go-back-to category. I will further admit that I had trouble sometimes knowing who was speaking in those books. So – I dragged my reading feet with this new one. I am really glad Cindy bullied me into reading this though. The free verse is evocative and, as always, I learned so much about Cuban history. I loved the interplay between the three young women, the exploration of the struggle for women’s rights and impact of class differences there. I agree that this is Engle’s most accessible book and one that is sure to make a lasting impression on readers. Jeanine Atkins has written a terrific article on Engle’s books with outstanding curriculum suggestions. Be sure to check it out too. Learn from me, my friends – don’t put off reading this quiet but powerful story.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

3 Comments on "The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle"

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  1. Angela.Craft@gmail.com' Angela says:

    I love the stories Engle tells, but I’m really not a fan of the poetry (I’m a Philistine with you, Lynn!). I also had trouble telling characters apart – my big problem with the poetry here is that Engle seems to have one format and style so you have to rely on the heading at the beginning of each poem to know who is talking this time around. I read this one around the same time I read Frost’s Crossing Stones (WWI American suffragist story), and preferred Frost’s style of using a different style of poetry for different characters.

  2. Thank you for posting at NONFICTION MONDAY today! As noted in my listing there, this cover is stunning in itself. I am a fan of Engle and now very much look forward to this book.

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