Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 19, 2010

What I’m Reading: The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

In this novel in verse set in 1851, we discover Cuba along with Swedish woman’s rights advocate and novelist Fredrika Bremer. She brings memories of her mother dividing treats in half, almost starving her, not only of food. Fredrika once burned a poem, knowing her mother would deem it not good enough. While it seems Fredrika (1801-1865) travels partly to escape her past, she meets Cecilia, a slave who misses her mother and sometimes longs for her old home in the Congo.

Cecilia is about fifteen, married, and pregnant. She helps translate and shows Fredrika around the island’s lush greenery, brilliant blossoms, sweet fruit and gorgeous glowing insects. Fireflies skitter over Fredrika’s hand as she writes, so she doesn’t need a lantern. She thinks if it weren’t for slavery, this might be paradise. She writes partly so that ladies in Europe spooning sugar in their tea will know about the struggles of those who cut the sugar cane.

While Fredrika and Cecilia were both real people, and their characters based partially on journals Fredrika kept, Elena was invented. She is a wealthy, lonely girl of twelve who dreads being married off at fourteen. Her story seems central in that she seems to me the character changes the most, though all take different kinds of risks. All, from very different backgrounds, reflect on issues of freedom and home, the tension between privilege and its absence.

As with Margarita Engle’s other books of verse, images from nature and art, in this case drawing and embroidary, bring color to the writing. The Firefly Letters is the kind of book I love, with eloquent and spare language that makes woven stories vivid. A book that made me want to reach the end, then go back and start again.

To learn more Margarita Engle’s other books, please see:

And for the Poetry Friday roundup, go to:



  1. This sounds wonderful, Jeannine. Thanks for your thoughts and insights :). *adds to TBR list*

  2. I just had to gush here……..
    I picked up your book, BORROWED NAMES at lunch today. And I just finished it.
    Absolutely AMAZING! I love this book.
    First of course, I share a name with Laura Ingalls Wilder and I was a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie and here you have given us the humanity that the entire series had missed.
    And Madam CJ Walker, such a humble hard working woman we can all admire. And Marie Curie. Oh, Marie. I adored this biography as a girl. It may have been one of the first books I ever bought at a school book fair. I so admired her brilliance. And when as an adult I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I did think of her as I had to drink radioactive iodine! A cure for me. Thanks to Marie.
    Mothers and Daughters.
    Wow Jeannine.
    As a daughter of a writer, I had a very hard time coming into my own writing. My mother was not published and I started with a feeling that my writing was stealing her dreams. It took a while to realize that it was a dream we shared and it was not only okay for me to write, but that it is exactly what I should be doing. Mothers and Daughters a complicated relationship.
    I am anxious to go online and read more about these daughters and I cannot thank you enough for writing this book.

  3. Re: I just had to gush here……..
    I just read your post. This sounds like a great book! : )

  4. Fredrika, Cecila, and Elena will break your heart a bit, but in lush surroundings. You will love the language.

  5. Re: I just had to gush here……..
    Oh, Laura. There is so much here that makes me happy. Your mother-daughter story sounds like a poem in itself. Thank you for telling me all of this.And your enthusiastic facebook messages, too! I love hearing your creativity bubble! xoxo Jeannine

  6. Thanks for bringing attention to this book, Jeannine. Now it is on my reading list.
    Laura Evans

  7. This looks like a wonderful read. Going to head to the library to look for it. Thanks,
    Jone (

  8. Great, Laura. I bet you have a pretty wonderful list.

  9. Jone, good luck at the library! The Firefly Letters just came out last week, so you may need to give them a nudge!

  10. This book is on my TBR pile right next to yours! Jama’s party for you got my excited about BORROWED NAMES and now you’ve gotten me excited about THE FIREFLY LETTERS!! Thanks for the great review. Off to read now…

  11. Mary Lee, thank you so much for putting both books on your pile, and for stopping by to tell me. It was exciting to share a publication week with someone whose work I so much admire!

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