The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

Swedish traveler Frederika Bremer, young slave Cecilia, and daughter of the Cuban gentry Elena, are three young women who have had their lives very specifically laid out in front of them by society’s expectations.  Frederika and Elena, as girls brought up in wealthy families in the 1850s, have enjoyed the many privileges that their class offers, but have been constrained by the many restrictions and few opportunities available to women at the time.  Frederika reacts to these restrictions by leaving her family and blazing her own path as a feminist and traveler, while Elena accepts her position without complaint or question.  Cecilia, who was sold into slavery by her father as a child, has not accepted her circumstances, but has never had an opportunity to channel her anger and homesickness.  They are brought together when Frederika leaves her home country of Sweden, traveling without a chaperone, to explore the Cuban countryside and tell the stories of the women and slaves in Cuba, in the hopes that “stories can lead to a change in laws” (pg. 27.  Quoted from ARC – language is subject to change.)

Frederika and Cecilia are based on real people, and Engle has clearly used their real-life situations, feelings and conversations, as recorded in Frederika’s published diary, to inform and flesh out these characters.  Frederika Bremer was a feminist and a traveler, and she spent three months exploring Cuba along with her real-life translator Cecilia.  They are compelling women, and Engle’s spare free verse poetry mixes their current circumstances and memories from childhood in ways that illuminate both.  Elena is the only major character who is not based on an actual person, and you can feel it.  Her story, of an aristocratic young woman who at first fears and distrusts the strange feminist who comes to her house, but gradually comes to agree with her, is neither original nor especially well told.  Elena eventually makes a choice that is lovely, but does not ring true – I did not feel that I had seen her character go through the growth that would be necessary to make that choice.

The short chapters alternate between the viewpoints of these three women, with a few brief interjections from Cecilia’s husband that did show another side of life in Cuba, but did not especially add to the story of Bremer’s visit.  Engle is at her best when she stays close to the story of Frederika and Cecilia.  It is the moments where these two women discover each others’ history that are most illuminating.  Despite their wildly different circumstances, they forge a connection based not on similar life experiences, but on the similar feelings of loneliness and constraint that their experiences have engendered.  Cecilia’s chapters, which are very straight-forward in their telling of her unimaginable life, are the most moving.  The spare form, which did not allow Engle to fully show Elena’s transformation, is much more effective in telling Cecilia’s story, where the reader benefits from having time and space to consider Cecilia’s stories and make connections between them.  When Cecilia’s chapter on her forced marriage and pregnancy is ended with a few short lines imagining that she is free of all her attachments, the simplicity of the poetry allows her thoughts to shine through and lets the reader to feel their resonance.

This short novel in verse is a very quick read and would make a great choice for reluctant readers doing historical fiction projects.  But it’s a carefully constructed story that will also appeal to curious readers who will want to follow this story’s characters and themes further – it has certainly inspired me to learn more about the life of Frederika Bremer.  Several books about Frederika’s life and Cuba in the 1800s are listed in a welcome reference section, although it would have been nice to include some materials in this list that are more accessible to middle grade readers.

Margarita Engle on the web

Reviewed from advanced copy received from publisher at ALA Midwinter.

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3 thoughts on “The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

  1. I completely agree with your statemnet on Elena. I feel like she is the character that was hardest ot get to know and her decision was out of the blue. Where was the slow development that led up to her decision? I actually wish this book was longer because I want to learn more about Fredericka Bremer, but I’m glad resources are listed. She’s an inspirational woman!

  2. Pingback: winged creatures « omphaloskepsis

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