Fredricka Bremer - Swedish suffragette, novelist, and humanitarian - traveled to Cuba in the hope of discovering a modern-day Eden. Instead, she found an island of contrasts: sparkling, tropical waters carrying boats full of children in chains; lush, vibrant landscapes that Cuban women were not free to explore, or even learn about.
Together with Cecelia, the slave girl who was her interpreter, and Elena, her wealthy host's daughter, Fredrika tells the tale of the Cuba that she experienced - both the ugly and the beautiful.
Novel in verse: yay! Multiple narrators: double yay! These are two of my favorite writing techniques, and I believe that they elevated this extremely short story into something more like art.
The Firefly Letters is a sleek little novel - I think it only took me about a half hour to read cover to cover - but the themes that it tackles are huge: slavery, gender roles, education, and classism. Whew. Real life suffragette Fredricka Bremer traveled to Cuba in 1851. Author Margarita Engle was able to use Bremer's letters, sketches, and diary entries from that time period in order to write The Firefly Letters. Bremer was shocked and dismayed to find that slaves, some as young as eight-years-old, populated much of the island. On top of that, she protested against the limited rights and educational opportunities that were afforded to free Cuban women and girls. In The Firefly Letters, the other two narrators - Cecelia and Elena, are both confused and delighted by Bremer's "radical" ideas concerning freedom and women's rights.
For me, Elena never became a very "real" character. Instead, she seemed more like a generic representative of all girls born into privilege on the island. And maybe that was because she was a product of Engle's imagination, while Cecelia was actually based on a real person - a young slave girl who Bremer described in her diary. Cecelia was clearly extremely intelligent; she could speak multiple languages and because of her skill as a translator, she was one of the most valuable slaves on the plantation. I imagine that her interactions with Bremer had a life-changing effect, and I hope that her baby was able to grow up as a free person.
For all of the weight behind this novel's history, it is truly a simply told story. It could easily be used in a classroom as part of a study on women's rights, slavery, or the history of Cuba. The poetry throughout would provide a fascinating foundation for lessons in perspective or making inferences.
I would recommend The Firefly Letters to readers of all ages who enjoy novels in verse and/or learning about other cultures.
between then and now
is too vast for memory
or a calendar
or a map.
When I ask her to tell me
what the rows of squiggles mean,
she reads her Swedish words out loud,
translating into English
so that I can understand
when she 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 cannot imagine
having to stay here
and live in this garden
does not grow.