The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba. Margarita Engle. 2010. Henry Holt. 160 pages.
I absolutely loved The Firefly Letters. I found it so amazing, so beautiful, so right. This isn't the first Margarita Engle novel I've read--she writes verse novels set in Cuba; all historical. (I've read The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, and Tropical Secrets.) But I must admit that this one is definitely my favorite so far.
The Firefly Letters is told in verse through three narrators--primarily. Cecilia, a young slave woman still mourning her lost home, her lost family. Elena, the daughter of a wealthy slave owner. Fredrika, a Swedish woman, far from home and on a mission. How are these three connected? How do their stories connect? Fredrika is staying--as a guest--at Elena's home. Cecilia is her translator--she's a slave that has learned to speak English, a valuable asset. Why is Fredrika in Cuba? What brings her around the world? She's a writer. And her mission is to write about Cuba--to write the truth--which means shedding light on the evils of slavery. Her mission brings her into close contact with all sorts of people. How will knowing Fredrika change these two young women? Will Frederika's strange, outlandish ideas of freedom, of equality, make an impact?
This story has staying power. Here is one of my favorite poems--narrated by Cecilia.
Imagine my nervousnessThe book is based in part on the life of Fredrika Bremer.
having to translate while Fredrika
scolds the schoolmistress
for keeping girls in class
only one hour per day
and for teaching them nothing
but embroidery, lacemaking,
and saints' lives
while boys study all day long
learning mathematics and science.
Elena looks so astounded
sitting in her classroom,
surrounded by giggling girls
in silk dresses with lace ruffles,
while Fredrika scolds and I translate,
all the time thinking
that one hour of school
is more than any slave girl
can hope to receive in a lifetime. (61-62)
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews