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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Firefly Letters, written by Margarita Engle. Henry Holt, 2010. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"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 saints' lives
while boys study all day long
learning mathematics and science."

This is fine historical fiction, told in Margarita Engle's elegant and descriptive verse. The author adeptly tells  Fredrika Bremer's story, using the letters, diaries and sketches that Bremer made when she visited Cuba in 1851 and other included resources.

'Fredrika Bremer was Sweden's first woman novelist and one of the world's earliest advocates of equal rights for women' and as such, provided a most worthy subject for this book. She traveled the world in search of a place where people were treated equally by everyone. She loved the climate and beauty in Cuba; but she was distressed by issues of slavery and her helplessness in making a real difference there. She stayed for three  months. Her stay was longer than planned in order to help Cecilia, her translator. Cecilia was a slave who longed for her African home; whose pregnancy, difficulty breathing and arranged marriage make her a most sympathetic character for readers.

Elena is an imagined character, endlessly curious about the world and allowed freedom with limitations. She is twelve when she meets Fredrika, and sure to be married by the time she turns fourteen as was the custom of the day. Her work is to learn the skills that will make her a valued wife and to add to her hope chest.
Her life is not unlike the life that Fredrika lived in Sweden, and from which she took her leave;

"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."

There are four narrators, the three women mentioned and Cecelia's husband, Beni. Each has a personal perspective for Cuban life and the other characters. It is fine writing that makes each of them a fully realized participant in the story they share. The women meet by chance and as they travel together, they find that they have a common goal...they want everyone to experience freedom and equality. Though their language and culture differ greatly, they find a kindred spirit in each of their traveling companions.

Powerful and informative, Margarita Engle offers a story of friendship and enlightenment. Each woman is changed by their shared experiences. Let's leave the final words to Fredrika:

"I think of the ladies in Europe
drinking hot tea with sugar.

Do they ever wonder
about the slaves
who chop the cane
that sweetens their tea?

How will they know
unless someone travels
and writes
about the tales
told by brave children
like Elena
and courageous mothers
like Cecelia?"


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