Friday, May 26, 2017

Margarita Engle's _The Wild Book_

The Plot: The Wild Book (2012) by Margarita Engle is verse novel inspired by the stories and experiences Engle's maternal grandmother told her about her childhood growing up in Cuba in the early 1900s. As she explains in her author's note, the verse novel follows Fefa (Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena) who lives on a small farm in the countryside during a time of "chaos following Cuba's war for independence from Spain and the subsequent US occupation of the island. It was a time of lawlessness, when bandits terrorized the countryside, kidnapping children unless their families agreed to deliver ransom money" (123). From the first poem in the collection, readers learn that Fefa has "word-blindness" (3)-- "a medical term used in the early twentieth century for what we now call dyslexia" (125). The narrative focuses on Fefa's struggle with dyslexia and learning to read and write through poetic exploration, as well as Fefa's encounter with Fausto, her family's old farm manager, who writes a sloppy "ugly" poem in her honor (42); Fefa is mortified by Fausto's attention.

The Poetry: Like many other of Engle's verse novels, The Wild Book employs free verse, lyricism, and imagery to tell the story of a young girl's experiences. The Wild Book in many ways shows a young girl developing a love for reading poetry and writing in her own wild book, which her mother gives to her upon her diagnosis with word-blindness: "Think of this little book / as a garden, / Mama suggests" (5-6). Her mother advises her to view her writing as a path to maturation and self-acceptance:
Throw wildflower seeds
all over each page, she advises.
Let the words sprout
like seedlings,
then relax and watch
as your wild diary
grows. (6) 
And eventually, a love of language emerges within Fefa. She exclaims later in the collection in a poem entitled "Fly to the Truth of Dreams" that she "love[s] the way poetry / turns ordinary words / into winged things" (68). In addition to the imagery and lyricism Engle relies upon, she also utilizes repetition and the space on the page to emphasize the ways in which Fefa's struggle with dyslexia manifests itself, as well as how she begins to find ways to allow herself to experience more comfort and pleasure in language.

The Page: Engle's verse novel begins with a dedication "for young readers who dread reading and for those who love blank books" which answers one of the chargers that the verse novel form is ideal for reluctant readers. This dedication is followed by a quote in Spanish with a translation from the poet Ruben Dario, who is referred to throughout the narrative as the Fefa's mother's favorite poet. The quote reads: "In the hour of daydreams my eyes watched / the blank page // And there came a parade of dreams and shadows" (from "La Pagina Blanca" or "The Blank Page"). This epigraph complicates Engle's dedication in that it demonstrates the complexity and intertextual, cross-cultural references made throughout the collection. The book ends with an author's note that includes a family photograph of Fefa from 1914 and an acknowledgements section.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wild Book; I give it four stars and highly recommend it.