Monday, May 22, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Firefly Letters_

On May 11, 2017 Margarita Engle was named the Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Engle follows Jacqueline Woodson, who was the previous honoree in 2015. As I've noted in previous reviews of Engle's work on this blog, Engle is a prolific verse novelist; she has published eleven verse novels to date (four of which I have reviewed here)-- one every year since 2008. Over the next year, as part of this blog's focus on the geneology of the verse novel, I will review the remaining six verse novels written by Engle, which date back to 2006.

The Plot: Engle's 2010 verse novel The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba is the second book in her "loosely linked group of historical verse novels about the struggle against forced labor in nineteenth-century Cuba" (Lion Island, 160). Winner of a Pura Belpré Honor for narrative, The Firefly Letters is a polyvocal verse novel that tells the story of real-life historical figure Fredrika Bremer (1801-65) who traveled to Cuba in 1951 for three months and interacted with a fifteen-year-old African-born enslaved translator named Celia. Engle's narrative follows these two women and her invented twelve-year-old character Elena. Bremer, as Engle explains in her historical note, was Sweden's first female novelist and one of the world's earliest advocates of equal rights for women (146). The Firefly Letters combines the voices of Fredrika, Celia, and Elena to explore the struggles facing women from different backgrounds, of different ages, and of different races toward equality.

The Poetry: While I found Engle's verse novel rich in terms of narrative, The Firefly Letters lacked some of the more arresting lyricism and imagery evident in many of Engle's more recent verse novels. The elements of poetic form that The Firefly Letters employs include the use of free verse and the space on the page, the blending of voices (each poem is titled by the character speaking's name), and the occasional bit of imagery or use of metaphor. One such passage appears in the poem told from Elena's point of view where she describes the folds in cloth as stirring "in the sea breeze, / moving with a sigh / like wings" (139). In this poem, Elena is meditating upon a secret plan she has to help better Celia's life that involves her smuggling expensive fabrics from her house. The "e" sounds in the first quoted line enact the "sigh" mentioned in the second line, while the final line that describes the movement of cloth as that of wings alludes to a possible freedom or movement toward hope.

The Page: Within the 144 pages of the verse novel, poems alternate between the three characters' points of view. The narrative is book-ended with a quote from a letter from Bremer to the Queen of Denmark describing her visit to Cuba and a historical note, an author's note, acknowledgements, and references. Engle cites Bremer's New Sketches of Every-Day Life (1850) as comprising the "most complete known record of rural daily life on the island [of Cuba] at that time" (146).

I give Engle's The Firefly Letters four stars. Look forward to my reviews of Engle's verse novels from published between 2006 and 2012, as well as her newest 2017 verse novel in the coming months.