Feb 28, 2012

The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba is a historical novel in verse about Swedish feminist activist Fredrika Bremer’s visit to Cuba in 1851 and the people she got to know there. These include Elena, the daughter of the wealthy family with whom Fredrika is staying, and Cecilia, a fifteen-year-old pregnant slave who accompanies Fredrika while she roams through the island and becomes acquainted with Cuban culture.

The Firefly Letters is alternately narrated by these three women, with occasional short sections from the point of view of Cecilia’s husband. Fredrika is in love with the natural beauty of Cuba, but horrified at the reality of slavery and the restrictions imposed on women’s lives. Cecilia has to deal with slavery on a daily basis, and recently also with the thought that her child will soon be born into the same dismal reality she inhabits. Finally, Elena learns by watching Fredrika that she may be economically privileged but she also lacks freedom: she has lived in Cuba all her life, but because young women are not expected to go wandering on their own, she knows nothing about the beautiful island that has so enchanted her family’s guest.

One of the things I liked the most about The Firefly Letters was the fact that it’s such a good example of intersectionality at work. Margarita Engle tells these women’s stories in a way that leaves room for both their common experiences and what sets them apart. Fredrika, Cecilia and Elena learn from each other in a way that doesn’t replicate the troubling power relationships that dominate their environment. As an independently wealthy woman, Fredrika has freedoms that most other women can’t enjoy. However, as a foreign visitor to Cuba she must balance her strong opinions with diplomatic demands. Elena recognises that she’s part of an oppressive system that affects Cecilia and that as such she has privileges the young slave will never have; but this doesn’t mean that gender doesn’t severely restrict her life. And Cecilia is able to connect with Fredrika and Elena when it comes to their common experiences as women without being required to ignore the fact that slavery determines her life in ways the other two will never experience.

It would perhaps be simplistic to say that these three characters deal with one another as equals – after all, they meet in a world where power hierarchies are constantly enforced, and the fact that they’re able to spend time together at all is closely linked to these hierarchies. But they come as close to equality as their social world allows: they attempt to create a space apart from problematic power dynamics and to recognise one another’s humanity.

The writing in The Firefly Letters is everything I hoped a novel in verse would be: sparse but charged with emotion, full of rich imagery, and able to conjure an entire world with only a few lines. Here’s a passage from Cecilia’s perspective that I particularly liked (and which I think also illustrates some of my previous points):
Imagine my nervousness
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 saint’s 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.
At only 114 pages, The Firefly Letters only gives readers a glimpse of the rich and complex world it evokes, but being left wanting more is certainly not a bad thing. Engle very helpfully provides a bibliography at the end for readers interested in learning more about Fredrika Bremer’s journey and life.

On a side note, how gorgeous is this book’s cover? The art is by Ana Juan, who also did the cover and illustrations for the wonderful The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

My review of The Firefly Letters is my contribution to Lu and Kelly’s monthly poetry blogging event. One of my goals for 2012 is to read more poetry, and I thought a novel in verse would be a good place to start.

Poetry: Read More Blog More

The Firefly Letters was a 2011 Pura Belpré Honour book. Many thanks to Tiina for recommending it to me - clearly she knows my taste well.

They read it too: A Book Blog of One’s Own, The Novel World, Reading in Color, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Becky’s Book Reviews

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. This sounds amazing. The combination of Sweden, intersectionality, gender.. I want it :) Also, VERY beautiful cover indeed.

  2. I have to say I have wanted to read this book BECAUSE of the cover! which is really a wrong reason to want to read it! But I'm glad to hear it is worth reading for other reasons! LOL

  3. This sounds like a really interesting read, not a subject I know much about. Plus the verse, one my goals this year is to read more poetry too.

  4. This definitely sounds like an interesting and worthwhile read.

  5. I do like a book in verse. I feel it just flows so beautifully. I like the YA books by Lisa Shroeder in verse. I think you capture the mood of the story so much better.

  6. I'm glad you bumped it up from your reading pile. It really is a well-written story in verse.

  7. This sounds very good! I actually enjoy novels in verse which is funny considering I am not a huge poetry fan...

    (Mr. Linky is up now. Sorry, I was slow!)

  8. I haven't read many novels in verse, but have been hearing that they are somehow more poignant and provocative due to the style. I would like to read this one, and find it interesting that the plights of these three women is woven into a perfect story of women's rights. This was a great review today, Ana, and I appreciated it!

  9. I'm so glad you liked it!:) And the cover is indeed beautiful.

  10. This sounded awesome until... I realised it's in verse. Now it sounds challenging, but at 100 pages it also sounds doable. Maybe I should really challenge myself, I do like the idea of a Swedish woman observing Cuba at the end of the 19th Century. It sounds very appealing, especially after your review.

  11. I love the cover and the fact that it's written in verse - sounds wonderful!

  12. This sounds so interesting! I haven't read many verse novels, but this definitely seems like it would be a good place to start.

  13. this sounds like a very interesting book. I loved the verse you shared. kaye—the road goes ever ever on

  14. I think I read novels in verse too quickly. BUT I adore this cover. Absolutely gorgeous.

  15. I have a copy of this one. I bought it because of the cover...it spoke to me and now to learn that the inside is just as beautiful is a great thing to read!

  16. What a fascinating story! This sounds really interesting and the cover is beautiful. My concern with novels in verse is that there doesn't often seem to be a point to the verse. Why tell a novel in verse rather than just write a novel? Or just write a book of poetry? I'm wary of them, but since you liked this one so much, I would definitely give it a try. I've only read a few, and they've all been YA. I really liked Out of the Dust, but it's been so long since I read it. I will have to give this one a try. Thank you for participating Ana!

  17. Iris: I definitely think you'd enjoy it a lot :)

    Jill: Actually, that sounds like a perfectly good reason to read it to me ;)

    Jessica: It's a great place to start, then!

    Amy: It really was :)

    Vivenne: Yes, when done well verse can be an excellent way to convey mood and imagery. I need to look up Lisa Shroeder.

    Narineh: Thank you for making me want to read it sooner rather than later!

    Kelly: No worries! I know you're a few hours behind me, so it's only natural. PS: I promise I'll work on our google doc today. Sorry I've been so slow!

    Zibilee: I suspect that like everything else they're a mixed bag, but I've had wonderful luck with them so far!

    Tiina: Thanks again for recommending it!

    Bettina: On the bright side, it's a perfect excuse to step out of your comfort zone and try something you normally wouldn't :P

    Kathy: It really is :)

    Grace: Yes, it would! Another one I loved was May B by Caroline Starr Rose.

    Kaye: If you liked that excerpt then you'd probably enjoy the whole thing. The writing is so simple, but so striking.

    Christina: It can be tempting to rush through it instead of taking the language in, but reading it slowly is definitely worth it.

    Staci: Do pick it up soon then! I'd love to hear what you think.

    Lu: I know what you mean about the format feeling forced or even gimmicky, but that really wasn't the case here. Margarita Engle is primarily a poet rather than a novelist, and the fact that this form of expression is natural to her really came across. This reads like a book of poetry with a narrative arc to tie it all together. Also, I need to read Out of the Dust! Debi has been telling me to for years.

  18. I've never heard of this book, but it has definitively caught my interest after reading your review. It sounds like a book my best friend would be interested to - we are always discussing feminism and many of the other topics the book touches upon. Perhaps we can read it together.

    Thanks for introducing this book to me :)


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