I never realized that our bimonthly theme on “Poetry-filled Yuletide Cheer” would lead mo to so many amazing books I would otherwise not have known. I suppose I’ve been saying this line ever since we started our bimonthly themes here in GatheringBooks. I first learned about novels-in-verse when my mentor loaned me her very own copy of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust – and so far, I’ve enjoyed most of the novels I’ve read. It is a bit more challenging though to find the time to review all of them. This particular book is also perfect for Nonfiction Monday which is being hosted this week by Heidi Grange from Geo Librarian. Head on over there to check out other interesting links shared by book enthusiasts and fellow bibliophiles.
Historical Notes and Background. The setting was in April of 1851 – the reader is introduced to Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) who was Sweden’s first woman novelist and earliest advocate of equal rights for women.
Margarita Engle included in her historical notes that she based much of her writing from Bremer’s Cuban letters, diaries, and sketches during her three month-visit in Cuba during the year 1851. Bremer was described further by Engle in this fashion:
Her travel books and stories about the daily lives of ordinary
women influenced Victorian English literature and helped obtain partial voting rights for Swedish women as early as the 18g0s. In 1854, deeply troubled by the Crimean War, Bremer published a historic peace document in newspapers all over the world, imploring women of all countries to unite in praying for peace and actively caring for the sick and the poor, especially children. (p. 146)
Fredrika is, without a doubt, a formidable woman. She did not only recognize that an injustice is taking place, she did not rest until she did something about it – her voice resounding through the ends of the earth – and echoing until the present date. That’s longevity. Thanks to Margarita Engle’s very thorough research work (she included her list of references at the very end of the book – worth checking out by educators who may wish to use this book in their class) – AND her poetic voice that remained true to Fredrika’s heartfelt insights, expressions of horror, and her dream-like musings, we get to experience a novel-in-verse like no other.
Three Faces of Womanity. In this novel-in-verse, we hear three distinct female voices: (1) Fredrika, a Swedish traveler who was expecting a quiet, idyllic, little place in Cuba only to be brought to a luxurious mansion in Matanzas, Cuba – where the ladies are safely locked in wrought-iron gates. (2) Elena, the 12 year old daughter of Fredrika’s hosts – preoccupied in embroidering jewelry-studded dainty things to complete her hope chest – in time for her wedding at age fourteen – conveniently arranged by her parents and (3) Cecilia, their fifteen year old slave, already married, and with child – smuggled in from the African Congo when she was eight years old. We also occasionally hear the voice of Beni, Cecilia’s husband – his apprehensions, his anxieties, and his befuddlement with the ways of Fredrika, the foreigner with the strange ideas.
To say that the three women come from entirely different worlds with its own strange symbols, gestures, and language – would be an understatement. While the character of Elena is entirely based on Margarita Engle’s richly textured imagination, her voice sings out to us with such poignant character. In these multiply-layered narratives, Cecilia, the 15 year old slave, served as the ladies’ translator – their spirits communicating to each other in a language beyond words.
Rather than present a synopsis of the book, which I loathe with fervor, I would rather allow these women to speak to you through some of their quotes which ‘spoke’ to me:
CECILIA (15 year old slave) Fredrika’s visit is touching my life in ways I could never have imagined. She has asked Elena’s father to give us a little house in the big garden where the two of us can live in peace, surrounded by cocuyos – fireflies - instead of chandeliers. Together, we walk over hills and valleys to see sugar plantations and coffee groves. We visit fields owned by wealthy planters and tiny patches of corn and yams that belong to freed slaves who live in little huts that look like paradise. (p. 13)
FREDRIKA I gave up my wealth when I left my father’s castle to roam, and to write. Now, I am troubled by my inability to help Cecilia buy her freedom and the liberty of her husband and her child, and I am overwhelmed by my wish to help all the other slaves on this suffering island. (p. 67)
ELENA (12 year old, Daughter of Fredrika’s hosts) I sit alone in my room at the ornately barred window, embroidering curlicues like the fancy ironwork that separates me from the rest of the world. I watch as my needle pierces soft cloth. The movement of the needle helps my mind move back and forth between many thoughts. Why should a woman like Fredrika have to choose between a career and love? She would make such a good wife and mother, if only she lived in some distant future when women will be free to do more with their lives than just sit behind bars, embroidering cloth for a hope chest that brings no hope. (pp. 110-111)
Woman. What does it mean to be One? Throughout the narrative, I sense Fredrika’s spirit, her shoes muddy, as she flies into the night freeing fireflies or cocuyos with Cecilia in tow and Elena eventually sneaking out at night to experience the night wind from the outdoors – away from the gated mansion.
I imagine Fredrika to be fearless – yet filled with compassion and unceasing empathy – for all creatures trapped, captured, and put in a pretty little jar for people to ooh and aah over. I imagine her to be endlessly curious and fascinated by all things strange and beautiful – suspending judgment – yet not failing to risk her own life and limb if need be for the sake of another. I imagine her to be fiercely intelligent yet kindhearted and generous in spirit and mind. I suspect she has the strength of a lioness, the tenacity of a tigress, and the gentle spirit of a bird in flight. The essence of all humanity with the entire universe captured in one’s hair glittering with a million fireflies. An essence that goes beyond gender, class, race, or creed. I was asking myself what was it about this book that moved me so – and I realized that it was the very gift of Fredrika Bremer’s life that unfailingly touches hearts – be it the fictional Elena or the all-too-real Cecilia.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet whose work has received much acclaim and recognition. Considered as one of the masters of the novels-in-verse genre, Margarita has been the recipient of the Pura Belpre Award, the Americas award, the Newbery Honor, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, Claudia Lewis poetry Award, the ALA Best Book and ALA Notable Book Award among others. Currently, she lives in Central California with her husband. If you wish to know more about her, click here to be taken to her official website.
PoC Reading Challenge Update: 55 (25)
The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010. Book borrowed from the community library.