The freedom to roam is something that women and girls in Cuba do not have. Yet when Fredrika Bremer visits from Sweden in 1851 to learn about the people of this magical island, she is accompanied by Cecilia, a young slave who longs for her lost home in Africa. Soon Elena, the wealthy daughter of the house, sneaks out to join them. As the three women explore the lush countryside, they form a bond that breaks the barriers of language and culture.
In this quietly powerful new book, award-winning poet Margarita Engle paints a portrait of early women's rights pioneer Fredrika Bremer and the journey to Cuba that transformed her life.
The Firefly Letters is a 2011 Pura Belpre Honor Book for Narrative and a 2011 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
About the Author
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.
Read an Excerpt
I remember a wide river and gray parrots with patches of red feathers flashing across the African sky like traveling stars or Cuban fireflies.
In the silence of night I still hear my mother wailing,
I was eight, plenty old enough to understand that my father was haggling with a wandering slave trader,
• * *
Spanish sea captains and Arab merchants are not the only men who think of girls as livestock.
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.
Papá has already warned me to ignore any outlandish ideas that I might hear from our strange visitor.
I have never imagined a woman who could travel all over the world just like a man!
• * *
Mamá says Fredrika does not speak much Spanish,
Cecilia can help.
I am sorry to say that Cecilia's English is much better than mine.
Translating is a skill that makes her useful in her own gloomy, sullen,
The visiting lady wears a little hat and carries a bag of cookies and bananas.
Her shoes are muddy.
When I ask the foreign lady where she is from,
• * *
Can her native country truly be as distant as the Congo,
In all my travels, I have never smelled any place as unfamiliar as Cuba.
I am eager to see the city and then set off on my own,
• * *
With her help I will see how people live on this island of winter sun that makes me dream of discovering Eden.
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.
I hide in my room, embroidering all sorts of dainty things — pillowcases and gowns with pearl-studded lace ruffles for my hope chest.
Cecilia and I are not quite the same age.
• * *
Too soon, I will reach fourteen,
When I asked the Swedish Consul to place me in a quiet home in the Cuban countryside,
Instead, I find myself languishing among gentry, surrounded by luxury.
The ladies of Matanzas rarely set foot outdoors.
• * *
If I'd wanted to endure the tedious life of a noblewoman,
There is no place more lonely than a rich man's home.
Fredrika's visit is touching my life in ways I could never have imagined.
Together, we walk over hills and valleys to see sugar plantations and coffee groves.
• * *
We ride across rivers in small boats,
The huts of the freed slaves make me think of my lost home —
The mist was silent but the water sang softly,
If I had known that my father would trade me for a stolen cow,
into the forest to live in a nest made of dreams and green leaves.
Cecilia is a fine translator,
When I ask Cecilia about liberty,
Fifteen dollars would be enough to purchase liberty for their unborn child.
How strange the laws are on this beautiful island where —
Cecilia and Fredrika live in a hut in our garden, but they dine in the big house with us,
Fredrika tells us that her mother never allowed her to eat her fill.
Hunger drove her to steal strawberry cream cake from the pantry.
Anger made her toss her gloves into the fire.
On the coldest, darkest night of Sweden's long winter,
I walked carefully to avoid setting my hair on fire as I carried the traditional gift of saffron buns to my parents.
• * *
I knew that I could not survive as a half-starved rich girl for the rest of my life.
My husband is a young man of my own tribe.
Perhaps, if I had been free to choose Beni myself,
Out in the garden lit by cocuyos
I feel like a young girl again,
If I had been free to choose my own wife,
I ride with my back straight and my hands gentle so my trusting mount will know that I am balanced and alert,
• * *
I cannot protect myself from the sorrows of this world,
Fredrika tells me she was in love with a country preacher in her homeland.
Travel is the magic that allows her to write about the lives of women whose husbands think of them as property instead of people.
Fredrika says stories can lead to a change in laws.
• * *
I am glad that Fredrika has chosen to write about Cuba and slavery.
When Elena visits us in the cottage,
Some of the drawings are pictures of famous people Fredrika met while she was traveling in North America —
Some are pictures of Fredrika's friends in Europe: the Queen of Denmark and a wonderful storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen who is in love with a famous singer,
There are pictures of slaves in the United States.
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,
Cuban fireflies are the most amazing little creatures I have ever seen.
I skim my hand across the page while the brilliant cocuyos help me decide what to write — there is so much to tell.
I must speak of Cecilia's homesickness and her lung sickness and the way her baby is doomed to be born into slavery.
I must describe Elena's loneliness and her longing for a sense of purpose.
Somehow, I must show my readers the bright flowers and glowing insects that make Cuba's night feel like morning.
When we visit the little huts where freed slaves live without masters,
I believe she simply enjoys the chance to hear free men and women describe their little farms as bits of paradise.
When she asks me if I long for my birthplace in the Congo,
what it is like to be a slave so far from home.
Cecilia has just explained Los Cuatro Consuelos,
They have the right to buy freedom and the right to marry and the right to own property and the right to petition for transfer to a new owner if the first one turns out to be cruel or unfair....
• * *
Of course, none of this seems adequate or logical because how can slavery ever be fair?
When I ask Cecilia if wealthy planters honor these laws,
We go out at night to rescue fireflies.
Children catch the friendly cocuyos
Women tie living cocuyos
• * *
Fredrika and I feel like heroines in a story,
I notice Elena peering down from her window,
How disturbing it feels to envy Cecilia,
She is free,
• * *
How I wish that I could go out with them tonight, to the beach!
In a moment of hesitant courage I ask Mamá
but she scolds me for wishing to have muddy shoes and a chance to run faster and faster in circles beneath the light of the eerie,
Cubans believe moonlight is harmful.
The beach is so lovely that I feel like a flying fish,
When Cecilia suddenly runs away from a few small boats that are bobbing on the waves,
How can anything as beautiful as a moonlit night be dangerous?
Excerpted from "The Firefly Letters"
Copyright © 2010 Margarita Engle.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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