Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review - The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba
by Margarita Engle
Date: 2010
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Reading level: YA
Book type: verse novel
Pages: 160
Format: e-book

The freedom to roam is something that women and girls in Cuba do not have. Yet when Fredrika Bremer visits from Sweden in 1851 to learn about the people of this magical island, she is accompanied by Cecilia, a young slave who longs for her lost home in Africa. Soon Elena, the wealthy daughter of the house, sneaks out to join them. As the three women explore the lush countryside, they form a bond that breaks the barriers of language and culture.

In this quietly powerful new book, award-winning poet Margarita Engle paints a portrait of early women's rights pioneer Fredrika Bremer and the journey to Cuba that transformed her life.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is the second verse novel I've read by this author, the first being The Lightning Dreamer. Both are set in Cuba and are historical fiction based on the lives of real people. While I enjoyed both books, I didn't feel quite as much of an emotional reaction while I was reading The Firefly Letters. Perhaps due to its short length, it didn't draw me into the story as much, and I had a difficult time caring about any of the characters.

The story is told from four points of view: Fredrika (a Swedish visitor), Cecilia (a slave, and Fredrika's translator), Beni (a slave, and Cecilia's husband), and Elena (the daughter of Fredrika's host). The author's note explains that Fredrika and Cecilia were real people. Beni was real, too, although the author had to make up a name for him and take some liberties with his character. Elena, however, is fictional, and I think perhaps this is why the story didn't work all that well for me. She is the character whose actions lead to the climax. But because she isn't real, it calls into question Cecilia's story arc as well. (Setting the story in this book aside, I want to know what really happened to Cecilia and her baby. Obviously, the truth is different than what is presented here.)

The writing is intelligent, with astute observations about women's roles, slavery, and social customs. The writing is also lovely, with lyrical descriptions of a magical island in the Caribbean. I don't really have many complaints about the writing itself.

This is a quick read, and if I'd been diligent, I probably could've gotten through it in one or two sittings. But something about it made me want to take my time and savour the words. While I don't think this book is as strong as The Lightning Dreamer, I do think it's a worthwhile read, especially for fans of historical fiction and/or verse novels.

Quotable moment:

does not surprise me.

I am accustomed
to the hidden plans
of slaves.

There is always
one dream or another,
a scheme to escape
and flee
into the wilderness
to live
without chains.

Maps of the roads
to wild places
are the reason
that we are not allowed
to learn
how to read.

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5 ladybugs

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