Title: The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba
Author: Margarita Engle
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publishing Date: March 16th 2010
Number of Pages: 160
Genre: Poetry, Historical Fiction
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.
The Firefly Letters is a 2011 Pura Belpre Honor Book for Narrative and a 2011 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.
Frederika and I
feel like heroines in a story,
following people around
buying captive fireflies
and setting them free.
I highlighted a pretty huge part of this book. That’s how much I loved it. This was such a quick read that left me gasping after turning the very last page and finding “historical note” instead of another POV from another character. Oh how I wish there was more!
Three girls from two completely different worlds met. One girl with freedom, two girls with none. This book gave me such a different experience I totally wasn’t expecting to get when I decided to read this.
This is a novel in verse set in Africa and Cuba and it is told in 4 point of views; Frederika’s, Cecilia’s, Elane’s and Beni’s.
I loved every character in this book and the story they all tell. They all clearly represent different personalities and stories. For you to better understand their characters, I will not describe them in my own words but instead I will quote some lines that will sum up what their characters are like:
Frederika, the foreigner from Scotsland:
I knew that I could not survive
as a half-starved rich girl
for the rest of my life.
Roaming the world
has been my escape.
I gave up my wealth
when I left my father’s castle
to roam, and to write.
Cecellia, an African slave who’s pregnant at the age of 15 because her owner made her marry at the age of 14 (as far as I can remember):
I was eight, plenty old enough
to understand that my father was haggling
with a wandering slave trader,
agreeing to exchange me
for a stolen cow
How can I ever manage
to buy my baby’s freedom,
and even if I could,
what would happen next?
Would my child grow up
ashamed of parents
who are slaves?
Elane, the daughter of Cecelia’s slaver and Frederika’s host on Cuba:
I have never imagined a woman
Who could travel all over the world
Just like a man!
Too soon, I will reach fourteen,
the age when I will be forced to marry
a man of my father’s choice.
The thought of marriage
to some old frowning stranger
makes me feel just as helpless
as a slave.
Beni, Cecelia’s husband:
“If I had been free
to choose my own wife,
I would have married the girl
I loved so long ago
before I was captured
by men with guns
who carried me to this island,
a world of noble horses
and human hatred.”
I loved how each of the characters tell their totally different views. I also loved the writing. It is simple and easily understood. It didn’t use words that are unfamiliar to some or too deep for someone like me whose first language is not English. I also loved and admire how this book showed the beauty of Cuba – its culture and its people – but also unraveled its horrific secrets at the same time. It shows both the beauty and ugliness of Cuba simultaneously. I admire this book for pulling that off. I just love the story in general. It was painful, it talks about the horrors of slavery of women and children in Africa and Cuba, but at the same time it was encouraging and hopeful and tells a beautiful journey – both of friendship and fighting for liberty.
Above everything, knowing at the end that this is based on real life made me love this book even more. Knowing that fact made my heart swell. Frederika, Cecelia and Beni are all real. Frederika was Sweden’s first novelist and one of the world’s earliest advocates of equal rights for women. While Cecelia was a slave she met on one of her trips to Cuba. Knowing this, imagining that all of those happened in real life after reading all those lines filled me both with dread, hope, sorrow and wonder.
The only minor problem I had with this book is that I think it was so quick that the emotions I felt were also fleeting. I felt different strong emotions, yes, it was just that some of those did not linger.
Overall, I really loved this book. The Firefly Letters is sorrowful, dreadful, but inspiring and hopeful telling a story of cry for liberty, women inspiring and supporting each other, knowing no boundaries in friendship and an eye-opener to the horrific slavery in the Africa and Cuba in the past. This is a quick diverse read that will leave you aching for more but also feeling hopeful in the end. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She lives with her husband in northern California.
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Have you read this? Did you love it as well? What are your thoughts about the characters and the ending? What is your favorite book that is based on real life? What is your favorite novel in verse? Share your thoughts below!