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14 March 2010 THE FIREFLY LETTERS: A SUFFRAGETTE'S JOURNEY TO CUBA by Margarita Engle, Holt, March 2010, 151p., ISBN: 978-0-8050-9082-6




When Elena visits us in the cottage,

we take turns leafing

through Fredrika's sketchbook.


Some of the drawings are pictures

of famous people Fredrika met

while she was traveling in North America --

poets named Emerson

and Longfellow.


Some are pictures of Fredrika's friends

in Europe: the Queen of Denmark

and a wonderful storyteller

named Hans Christian Anderson

who is in love with a famous singer,

Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale,

even though he knows

that the singer will never love him.


There are pictures of slaves

in the United States.

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."


"In the 1850s, publishing was still a daring act for women.  The novel Hertha (1856) by Swedish author Fredrika Bremer so forcefully depicted the crushing effects of patriarchal tyranny that it persuaded lawmakers in Sweden and Denmark to give adult women full legal standing, but Bremer felt it necessary to keep her publishing secret from her father.  For many women like Bremer, the novel became a vehicle of protest, however indirect, against male privilege.  The domestic novel, which appeared in the United States between the 1820s and the 1870s, dramatized the lives of ordinary women and depicted strong female communities.  Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) is an enduring example."-- from IN THEIR TIME: A HISTORY OF FEMINISM IN WESTERN SOCIETY by Marlene LeGates (2001)


In fact, in LITTLE WOMEN (on page 61), Mrs. March is said to read to her four daughters from Bremer.


In 1851, author and activist Fredrika Bremer spent three months in Cuba, traveling around the island with a young African-born slave who belonged to her hosts and who served as Bremer's translator.  Drawing upon the nineteenth century writings and sketches of Fredrika Bremer, an early, important, and still relatively unknown figure in the women's rights movement, Margarita Engle has crafted THE FIREFLY LETTERS, a prose poetry dramatization of Bremer's time on the island. 


The story is told in alternating poems by Fredrika, her young translator Cecilia, by Cecilia's husband, and by Elena the fictional daughter of Bremer's hosts, a twelve year-old growing up in wealth and privilege who often seems to have even less freedom than the slaves owned by her father. 


It is when Fredrika leaves the confines of her host's home with Cecilia in tow (leaving young Elena stuck at home without companionship), and sets out across the island, that we come to grasp how the lively and rich culture that the slaves have brought with them contrasts so sharply with the strait-jacketed patriarchal society and customs from which Fredrika has escaped and to which Elena is a young, unwilling victim.




When we go out at night

to watch the dance of slaves

on sugar plantations,

Fredrika sketches furiously

in her fat notebook,

turning the bursting pages

in a frenzy of excitement.


She says she loves the music of drums

and the graceful movements of dancers

just as much as she loves her own

treasured freedom to roam.


An overseer orders me to warn Fredrika

that some of the songs might be prayers

to dangerous spirits from distant jungles,

but Fredrika merely smiles, and tells me

that in Sweden people still believe in elves

and trolls, and a World Tree with roots

in the Fountain of Design.


I understand none of this

until Fredrika explains

that she has no wish to judge

the beliefs of others

because her own beliefs include

both the endless comfort

of the goodness of God

and the practical help

of a little traveling fairy

who rides on her shoulder

protecting her from harm.


I try to see a traveling fairy

on my own shoulder...

but all I see is Fredrika

at my side,

helping me to imagine

invisible wings." 


THE FIREFLY LETTERS is a sterling example of how less can so often be more.  Good prose poetry -- like all good poetry -- relies on strategic employment of the right words to paint pictures.  As with so many great poetry novels, there is so much payoff here and relatively few words. 


I had not previously heard of Fredrika Bremer.  I had no idea that Sweden and Denmark had enacted that legislation so far in advance of the U.S.  I had no idea what Cuba was like 160 years ago.  And, yet, in learning so much, I was able to read through this latest work by award-winner Margarita Engle in a very short amount of time, and then return to reread and savor a bunch of the poems I'd marked along the way.


I'm not the biggest fan of Women's History Month.  (I don't like the idea that one of the twelve months is for women, arguably leaving the other eleven for celebrating the brilliant guys who seem to have always gotten us into these messes.)  But, being that it is March, it does make good sense to line up a copy of this book asap.    


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com


Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/middle_school_lit/

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FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books.  You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received.  Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

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