The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

I have adored Engle and her poetry since first reading her Poet Slave of Cuba.  This historical novel told in verse tells the story of early Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer and her travels in Cuba.  While in Cuba she inspires and changes the lives of two women, a slave named Cecilia and a wealthy young woman named Elena.  At first amazed and shocked by the freedom Fredrika demonstrates, Elena warms to her as she begins to understand that the future could be different than just an arranged marriage.  Cecilia finds in Fredrika a woman who looks beyond her slave status and a role model for hope.  Told in Engle’s radiant verse, this is another novel by this splendid author that is to be treasured.

As with all of her novels, Engle writes about the duality of Cuba:  the dark side and the light, the beauty and the ugliness.  Once again she explores the horrific legacy of slavery without flinching from its truth.  Against that background of slavery, she has written a novel of freedom.  It is the story of a woman who refused to be defined by the limitations of her birth and her sex, instead deciding to travel and write rather than marry.  Fredrika is purely freedom, beautifully contrasted with the two women who are both captured in different ways and forced into lives beyond their control. 

Beautifully done, this book is an excellent example of the verse novel.  Each poem can stand on its own and still works to tell a cohesive story.  At times Engle’s words are so lovely that they give pause and must be reread.  This simply deepens the impact of the book.  Engle also uses strong images in her poems.  In this book, fireflies are an important image that work to reveal light and dark, as well as freedom and captivity.

Highly recommended, this author needs to be read by those who enjoy poetry, those who enjoy history, and those who simply are looking for great writing.  Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from library copy.