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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Lightning Dreamer, written by Margarita Engle. Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $19.99

"She warns me that no rich man
will ever fall in love with a girl
who loves books, but I don't care.
I will never marry a man
who thinks girls
should be

Her amazing run continues! I have just finished reading Margarita Engle's new novel in verse about Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist. It is just as wonderful
as every other one of her books. She is a remarkable poet and writer whose stories about Cuba and its history have informed and attracted a legion of fans.

Here she introduces us to Tula, also known as Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda. Tula is well known as a Cuban writer whose poetry gained her notoriety as one of the first feminist authors. Much of her writing focused on arranged marriages that were brokered for profit, even within her own family. In fact, she refused two such marriages. Her mother did not appreciate that Tula was not like most girls:

"When she catches me writing,
she calls me sinful, loca - crazy -
a manly girl, a madwoman,

From a young age, her mother wanted to arrange a marriage for Tula that would benefit the family financially. Tula was more interested in the slaves, especially Caridad, the nuns who allowed her a voice and access to their library, and books:

"In a mother's eyes,
she can be only
a monster of defiance
or an angel of obedience,
in between.

So we send her to the library,
a safe place to heal
and dream..."

As she reads, Tula learns about radical new ideas concerning the freedom due women and slaves. The laws and customs of her country do not allow the freedom that she craves as she becomes more informed. This forces her to find her own voice among the voices within and beyond Cuba. Margarita Engle allows that this is historical fiction; yet, she creates a voice so compelling and authentic that I feel I am truly cognizant of everything that Tula was feeling when she wrote. It was impossilble to put it down once I began reading, and I went back time and again to reread many passages.

Caridad, the slave, has this to say about poetry:

"Certain poems
help me feel young
instead of old.

instead of weak.

instead of fearful.

Their words are like wings,
helping me fly away
from this kitchen,
this mop,
these filthy pots and pans,
my endless chores..."

That is the power of poetry, a case in point whenever I have the pleasure of reading Ms. Engle's works.

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