Award-Winning Books PoC Reading Challenge 2011 Poetry-Filled Yuletide Cheer Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

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

Our theme for the month. Poster courtesy of the ever-talented Iphigene.

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.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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

Image Source: Wikipedia - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

Stockholm, Sweden in the 1800s. Photo uploaded by Carol Higgins on - click on the image to be taken to the websource. - Home of Fredrika Bremer.
Matanzas Cuba - click on the image to be taken to the websource. - Home of Elena.
African Congo Bowmen - Home of Cecilia - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

Children slaves from Congo aboard an Arab slave ship on Indian Ocean passage - taken during the 1800s - click on the image to be taken to the websource - BurnedShoes.tumblr

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)
An Actual Bill of Sale: (image obtained from Burned Shoes.tumblr as sourced from the original lo-res source: manufactoriel; thanks to / via: 6dollarsandacigarette) - click on the image to be taken to the websource.
I gave up my wealth
Photo: Wikipedia/Gabriel Ehrnst Grundin 15.1.2009 - Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
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.
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
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.

taken by Judd Patterson - as shown in - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

The lovely Margarita Engle - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

13 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: The Firefly Letters, A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

  1. Thank you for telling about this book. I wrote about two novels in verse a few weeks ago for poetry Friday, and wish I could have included it in a brief list I shared too. I have begun to love these books and because of that post, have discovered more. This will go on my wish list!


  2. Thanks for sharing The Firefly Letters and the photos. I can’t wait to read it.


  3. Pingback: Nonfiction Monday: Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree – Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom |

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  8. What an excellent review and an intriguing book, I can’t wait to read this, thank you so much for the further insights into Margarita’s work. I love this.


  9. Pingback: Wild about Words: Margarita Engle’s The Wild Book «

  10. Pingback: Inventing Life as it Goes: A review of Margarita Engle’s Tropical Secrets «

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