Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle

ARC Macmilliam (Henry Holt & Company)

Release Date: March 16, 2010 (Today!)

Rating: 4/5

IQ "when she [Fredrika Bremer] describes Cuba as one of God's most beautiful creations-an island of eternal summer/like an outer court of Paradise/ where she has inhaled new life,/ although she can't imagine/ having to stay here/ and live in this garden/ where freedom/ does not grow." pg. 69-70 Cecilia describing a poem of Fredrika's

The Firefly Letters describes Fredrika Bremer's visit to Cuba in 1851. Fredericka was a big supporter of women's equal rights and the first woman novelist in Sweden. Fredrika roams Cuba accompanied by Cecilia (a pregnant, teenage slave) and Elena (the daughter of a wealthy sugar mill owner). Elena must sneak out to join them since Fredrika's ideas are 'revolutionary' and 'unseemly' for a rich young lady to listen to. As Fredrika explores Cuba she observes the gorgeous scenery, the cruel conditions of slavery and learns about the mix of Spanish and African culture that makes Cuban culture.

I feel as though I would have enjoyed this book more if it was not in poetry form. The poetry flowed quite nicely and was lovely to read, BUT I was left wanting more information (which may have been the author's intent). The author does not get into Fredrika's background or explain in too much detail what Fredrika saw in Cuba. Most of that is saved for the biography in the end of the book. while the poetry gave me a good idea of who Fredrika was, the biography explained a lot more and really shaped how I viewed her. Considering how Fredrika spent three months in Cuba, I think this book could have been in poetic verse with short prose but been made longer. Elena was a flat character. Unlike Cecilia she was a fictional character and I wasn't invested in her character. Her growth and maturity as a character came rather suddenly and contrary to how the book sounds, she doesn't spend that much time with Fredrika. I thought Elena could have been left out of the story all together, though she does have a shining moment.

I much preferred reading about Cecilia and Fredrika. Cecilia was a real person who did accompany Fredrika around and she introduced her to the horrors of slavery. Cecilia also showed Fredrika (and the readers) the beauty of Cuba and its culture, mostly as influenced by the African slaves. Cecilia is Fredrika's companion because she speaks English and Fredrika spoke no Spanish, so Cecilia was her translator. Cecilia was resilient and I admired her strength in the face of being young (fifteen), pregnant, and married to a fellow slave that she did not know or love. As I've mentioned before, Cuba is one of my favorite countries to read about so I was quite intrigued by the Cuban customs and beliefs described. For example; Cubans back then (I have no idea if they still do) believed that moonlight was harmful. Whenever they went outside at night, they covered their heads. Interesting. As Fredrika says "How can anything as beautiful as a moonlit night be dangerous?" (pg. 42)

Overall, I was captivated by the vivid descriptions of Cuba, from its landscape, to its culture, the good and the bad. I finished this book wanting more and I was grateful for the references listed at the back of the book so I can read more about Fredrika Bremer. She was an amazing woman (she sat in the back of church with the African slaves which was "terrible"!) who not only promoted equal rights for women, but equal rights for Blacks. Cecilia is another wonderful character who offers a perspective of Cuba not often seen; that of a slave. Elena's story could have gone further than it did and it would have been nice to read more about her. The alternating three viewpoints add interest to the story and the poetic prose will delight readers of all age (though the shortness of the book may frustrate older readers, 144 pages but it's a fast read).

Disclosure: Received from Colleen. Thanks so much!!

PS This was unintentional but my reading and reviewing of this novel coincided with Women's History Month. I realize I haven't done a post on it, but I don't think I need to. I love reading about strong, female characters and I love reading about feminists from the past. Sadly, my school does not celebrate Women's History Month so I don't know as much about women's history as I should. But I do lots of reading (like this) to make up for it.


  1. Even with its flaws, this sounds like a great read. Have you read anything else by Engle? I read The Poet Slave of Cuba by her last year and really enjoyed it. It's also a short book in verse.

  2. Sounds like we had really similar responses to this one. I enjoyed seeing your thoughts!

  3. I could see why she included Elena - to show how the Spanish women in Cuba also were imprisoned to a certain degree (and had no control over their lives) but I do wish there had been more about her. It might just be that in comparison to the other two characters no one would be as exciting but she was a bit flat.

    Fredrika & Cecilia were awesome though! I am very intrigued by Fredrika now - what an utterly fascinating woman. And, of course, I'm even more interested in Cuba. (Just got The Red Umbrella today!)

    So glad you enjoyed this one!!

  4. Didn't realise this was a novel in verse and contained fictional characters, I was expecting total fact. But I'm always looking for new novels in verse and the subject matter sounds really interesting.

  5. @Vasilly-No I haven't read anything else by Margarita Engle, although I do have the Surrender Tree. The Poet Slave of Cuba sounds interesting. I would still recommend Firefly Letters.

    @bibL-Yup, I read your review and was like 'I felt the same way!' Still really enjoyed this book.

    @Colleen-I understood the intention of Elena but we didn't learn as much about her so at the end I just felt there was no point. Yes Frederika and Cecilia were so cool! Over the summer I'm going to read up on them (well mostly Frederika since there's nothing on Cecilia). I'm soooo jealous that you got the Red Umbrella. I can't wait for its debut =)

    @Jodie-No it's historical fiction and it flows well in verse with an original subject matter. I recommend it!


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