Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

Set in Cuba, The Firefly Letters weaves together four voices: Fredrika the foreign traveler, Cecilia the wealthy daughter of the house, Elana the slave girl and Beni, Elana’s husband. It is interesting to watch the dynamics of power between characters and the social structures of Cuba. Those we assume have power are often powerless in certain situations. All the voices represent someone who is or has been enslaved. The idea of freedom is explored. Elana remarks that she is jealous of Elana, a slave, because Elana is free to explore the countryside with Fredrika while she, Cecilia, is not allowed to venture out. Yet, Elana is forced to labor when and where her master commands. The story ends with a struggle wherein the characters work together to find their own freedom.

Fredrika Bremer was a Swedish writer and feminist who visited Cuba in 1851. As part of the aristocracy, her position was a privileged one though not necessarily a happy one as she was often forced to stay indoors and deliberately malnourished to have a “feminine” ballerina-like form. Groomed to be a wife for the aristocracy, Bremer never married but filled her life by writing, traveling and working to help the less fortunate.

As a piece of historical fiction, The Firefly Letters shines. But like fireflies, the illumination is brief as this is a short novel in verse. I found the story interesting but would have liked a longer narrative with a chance for deeper character development. I felt Cecilia's transformation was quick and so rather unlikely. However, the four voices offer distinct and insightful perspectives on freedom and Engle captures Cuba’s landscape to great effect. The Firefly Letters won the Pura Belpré Honor in 2011. This book counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!

Publisher: Henry Holt, 2010     Pages: 160     Full Title: The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba     Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library


  1. What a strange cover! I've not seen this one before. Thanks.

  2. I love the cover :) I read this a month (?) ago and was completely intrigued with the author's note on Fredrika Bremer at the end. I almost felt like the format did her story a disservice b/c I would have liked so much more information! That being said, it was a good, quick intro to an interesting period in Cuba's history...

  3. i have GOT to get my hands on that book. The cover is AMAZING and I would love to read more about Cuba!

  4. BTW? Love love love View from Saturday!