The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba, by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba , by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba, by Margarita Engle

A long while back, I talked about Margarita Engle's Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words over at Kirkus. In that review, I mentioned having read this one as well. 

Since then, I have ILLed the other three in the series—The Poet Slave of CubaThe Surrender Tree, and The Lightning Dreamer—and I'm hoping to read them all this weekend. The books are loosely connected—they're all historical verse novels and they deal with similar issues and themes. But they're about different people (some real, some fictional) and events in Cuba's history, so each one stands alone, and reading them in publication order doesn't seem necessary. 

From 1849-1851, Fredrika Bremer—Swedish writer, feminist, and activist—traveled extensively throughout the United States, and she finished her trip off with a three-month stay in Cuba before heading back to Europe. The Firefly Letters is Engle's depiction of that time in Cuba, largely based on Bremer's letters, diaries, and sketches.

It's mostly narrated by three characters. Cecilia, a 15-year-old enslaved girl—who is both married and pregnant—who acts as Fredrika's translator and guide:

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. 

Spanish sea captains and Arab merchants
are not the only men
who think of girls
as livestock.

Elena, the 12-year-old daughter of Fredrika's host—who is also the man who owns Cecilia:

Mamá has informed me
that we will soon play hostess
to a Swedish traveler, a woman
called Fredrika, who is known to believe
that men and women are completely equal.
What an odd notion!

And of course, Fredrika herself:

How strange the laws are
on this beautiful island where—
if not for slavery—
I could think of the palm trees
and winter sun
as true evidence
of Eden

Fredrika Bremer via Wikipedia.

Fredrika Bremer via Wikipedia.

Fredrika and Cecilia were real people. Elena is Engle's creation, as is Cecilia's husband, Beni, who narrates a few poems as well. (Cecilia was married in real life, and her husband was mentioned in Bremer's letters, but she didn't name or describe him.)

Elena is both the most difficult character, and the character who is the most changed by the end of the book. She starts off as privileged, imperious, and somewhat snotty—someone who finds the 'sullen' attitude of an enslaved girl annoying, rather than UNDERSTANDABLE:

I am sorry to say
that Cecilia's English
is much better than mine.
She is just a slave, 
but she does have a way
with words.

Translating is a skill that makes her useful
in her own gloomy, sullen, 
annoying way.

A girl who is uncomfortable with Bremer's pushback against what she's always known as acceptable and proper female behavior:

I find the Swedish lady's freedom to wander
all over the island
without a chaperone
so disturbing
that I can hardly bear her company.

But even as she voices discomfort with Bremer's behavior, she chafes against the very restrictions and traditions that Bremer questions:

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.

That except, though, right there, is a great example of why Elena is so difficult. Again and again, she compares her situation to Cecilia's, and there's never really a realization that while yes, there are parallels in regards to lack of rights and freedom, it's really not the same thing at all. Fighting against tradition, bucking social convention, and feeling trapped by said traditions and social conventions is NOT the same thing as being bought and sold and owned by another person. And, speaking of parallels, Cecilia was ALSO forced to marry a man of Elena's father's choosing:

Perhaps, if I had been free
to choose Beni myself,
I might know how to love him,
but he is a stranger,
and now that I am living
in a cottage with Fredrika,
I hardly see my husband at all.

An order that, it should be noted, was not embraced by the groom either:

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.

All of this is to say that, yes: I can see how a free twelve-year-old girl would find it unfair that she doesn't have agency or power in her own life. But her habit of comparing her situation to Cecilia's is grating at BEST, and as there's no real pushback against the false equivalency of that connection, it ultimately subtly supports it. In other words, intersections of marginalization and subjugation matter, but The Firefly Letters doesn't do a great job of acknowledging that.

Title page of Fredrika Bremer's  Homes of the New World, Vol 1 .

Title page of Fredrika Bremer's Homes of the New World, Vol 1.

Midway through the book, Elena says:

I don't know how or why
it happened,
but somehow
I have begun
to think of Cecilia
as my best friend.

And, again, it's understandable that a young, lonely girl who feels trapped by her circumstances would gravitate to someone that she feels a connection to in terms of age and situation—but she doesn't acknowledge or even seem to understand that the power dynamics there would make a true friendship impossible. Which is certainly the way privilege works—since Elena doesn't have to consider these things, she doesn't—so again, in the context of the character, it makes sense. But as a whole, it still makes the picture unbalanced.

Speaking of power dynamics, there's a scene in which Fredrika has Cecilia translate a scolding tirade directed at Elena's schoolmistress—Fredrika is angry that the girls only get an hour of schooling a day, and that hour is devoted to embroidery and saints' lives and so on, rather than mathematics or science. Cecilia mentions that the situation made her nervous—because of course it would, being a mouthpiece for criticism aimed at someone who holds a higher station than she does—but it's her desire to have the opportunity to learn that gets the lion's share of the poem's attention. But, subtle as it is, it's a moment in which even Fredrika—a woman who is vocally anti-slavery—comes off as oblivious as to the tightrope she's asking Cecilia to walk.

Back to my issues with Elena! Late in the book, Elena uses the resources at her disposal—money and a whole lot of free time—to find a way to pull together the funding for Cecilia to buy freedom for her unborn child. And that's a lovely, hopeful moment, although it does ultimately feel like this book is more Elena's story than anyone else's—she's the one with the most notable arc of growth. Which is discomfiting because it makes Cecilia, a real person who lived in this world, who really was enslaved, feel more like a plot device than a person.

There's so much detail about the rules and laws surrounding slavery in Cuba, as well as some passages that discuss slavery in the United States. As she did in Lion Island again and again, Engle highlights the hypocrisy inherent in fighting for freedom while simultaneously withholding those same freedoms from another group of people:

Fredrika admits that, until she saw
the United States of America
with her own eyes,
she imagined she might find paradise
in the land of Emerson
and Longfellow.

Instead, she found the slave market
in New Orleans, with a schoolhouse
right beside it
where children were singing
about the Land of the Free
while, just outside
their classroom window,
other children
were bought and sold
or traded
like stolen cows.

Three more parallels to Lion Island! The first, of course, is the power of words to create change. Fredrika, in traveling and observing and sharing stories around the world, is able to change people's perspectives, minds, and hearts. 

Second! Both books also acknowledge the divide between what is right and what is possible: that while the morality of a situation may be entirely black and white, the actual practical nuts and bolts of trying to address that situation are more confused. In this case, if Fredrika were to buy Cecilia's freedom, it could cause an international incident. Buying freedom for her baby, as I referenced above, is more immediately possible:

Fifteen dollars would be enough
to purchase liberty
for their unborn child.
The price will double
on the day of its birth.

And third: In both books, the characters are very much working for change, but they're aware that the changes they're working towards may not come fast enough to better their own lives—but they still forge forward, in the hopes that life will be different for the next generation.