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The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba Hardcover – March 16, 2010
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As in The Poet Slave of Cuba (2006) and The Surrender Tree (2008), Engle draws on little-known Cuban history to tell a stirring, immediate story in poetry. Based on the diaries and letters of Swedish suffragist Fredrika Bremer, who spent three months in Cuba in 1851, this title focuses on oppressed women, the privileged as well as the enslaved, in three alternating free-verse narratives. Fredrika remembers that back home in Sweden, she was kept hungry so that she would grow up to be thin and graceful. Her savvy translator is Cecilia, a teenage slave who remembers being captured in the Congo when she was eight years old and sold to a trader by her own father. Elena is a fictional character, a privileged girl in a slave-owning family who is forced into a life filled with “frilly dresses and ornate dance steps” that allows her little freedom. Through this moving combination of historical viewpoints, Engle creates dramatic tension among the characters, especially in the story of Elena, who makes a surprising sacrifice. Grades 6-12. --Hazel Rochman
“Like the firefly light, Engle's poetry is a gossamer thread of subtle beauty weaving together three memorable characters who together find hope and courage. Another fine volume by a master of the novel in verse.” ―Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“This slim, elegant volume opens the door to discussions of slavery, women's rights, and the economic disparity between rich and poor.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Through this moving combination of historical viewpoints, Engle creates dramatic tension among the characters, especially in the story of Elena, who makes a surprising sacrifice.” ―Booklist
“This engaging title documents 50-year-old Swedish suffragette and novelist Fredrika Bremer's three-month travels around Cuba in 1851. …The easily digestible, poetic narrative makes this a perfect choice for reluctant readers, students of the women's movement, those interested in Cuba, and teens with biography assignments.” ―School Library Journal
“The author has a gift for imbuing seemingly effortless text with powerful emotions. . . .This uncommon story will resonate when placed in the hands of the right reader.” ―Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“The imagistic, multiple first-person narrative works handily in revealing Bremer, an alert and intelligent woman in rebellion against her background of privilege.” ―The Horn Book
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Top Customer Reviews
The story is told in alternating poems by Fredrika, her young translator Cecilia, by Cecilia's husband, and by Elena the fictional daughter of Bremer's hosts, a twelve year-old growing up in wealth and privilege who often seems to have even less freedom than the slaves owned by her father.
It is when Fredrika leaves the confines of her host's home with Cecilia in tow (leaving young Elena stuck at home without companionship), and sets out across the island, that we come to grasp how the lively and rich culture that the slaves have brought with them contrasts so sharply with the strait-jacketed patriarchal society and customs from which Fredrika has escaped and to which Elena is a young, unwilling victim.
THE FIREFLY LETTERS is a sterling example of how less can so often be more. Good prose poetry -- like all good poetry -- relies on strategic employment of the right words to paint pictures. As with so many great poetry novels, there is so much payoff here and relatively few words.
I had not previously heard of Fredrika Bremer. I had no idea that Sweden and Denmark had enacted that legislation so far in advance of the U.S. I had no idea what Cuba was like 160 years ago. And, yet, in learning so much, I was able to read through this latest work by award-winner Margarita Engle in a very short amount of time, and then return to reread and savor a bunch of the poems I'd marked along the way.
I'm not the biggest fan of Women's History Month. (I don't like the idea that one of the twelve months is for women, arguably leaving the other eleven for celebrating the brilliant guys who seem to have always gotten us into these messes.) But, being that it is March, it does make good sense to line up a copy of this book asap.
The Swedish consulate places Fredrika with a rich family in Cuba. The family has slaves. Cecilia, a slave (around 15 yrs old), is Bremer's guide and translator. 12 yr old Elena, is the daughter of the house. The story is told through these three women. Engle has given Cecilia's husband Beni, a few poems of his own. I like them, especially the first one. Though I do think Beni's poem messed with the rhythm of the story a little.
The huts of the freed slaves
make me think of my lost home
I remember a ghostly mist
rising over the river
after a boy drowned
trying to escape
from the slave traders.
The mist was silent
but the water sang softly
telling its own
If I had known
that my father would trade me
for a stoloen cow
I would have run away
into the forest
to live in a nest
made of dreams
and green leaves.
Fredrika is against slavery and hates how women are treated in Cuba. Fredrika documented her trip in hopes of making people care about what was going on. With Cecilia as her guide Fredrika see much of Cuba. At night the two save fireflies, from the children who pull of their wings.
Elena watches from her window. Its 1851, and its not proper for a young girl to do, basically anything. Elena can only do as she is told. She longs for a little independence.
Engle's poems are beautiful. The voices of the three women fit together like music. The Firefly Letters was simply a pleasure to read.