Margarita Engle

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Lightning Dreamer
March 17 – Today’s post contributed by Margarita Engle

THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Margarita EngleI was inspired to write about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (also known by her childhood nickname, Tula) partly because she was brave, and partly because she was an independent thinker, far ahead of her time.Tula’s mother regarded literature as unladylike, so she had to write in secret, then burn her stories and poems. One of her favorite literary projects was a theater for orphans, where she performed plays she wrote when she was as young as ten. This creativity, along with her childhood courage, carried young Tula toward her legacy as one of the most celebrated female writers of the nineteenth century. Forgotten by history, today she is practically unknown outside her native Cuba, with the exception of Spain, where she lived most of her adult years. I hope that The Lightning Dreamer will help bring her back from obscurity.As an abolitionist, Tula was more daring than most of her male contemporaries. Since there was no free North in Cuba, most abolitionists were poets and novelists, rather than essayists and orators. Censorship and persecution simply did not make it possible to take a stand openly, so references to emancipation were veiled in metaphors. At a time when male abolitionist writers in Cuba generally paired their secretive appeals for emancipation with metaphorical appeals for freedom from Spain, Tula had a unique perspective. Instead of challenging the Spanish Empire, she paired her abolitionist writing with feminist themes. Her interracial romance novel, Sab, was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only did Sab make an impassioned appeal for emancipation, it surpassed that narrow goal by showing the need for complete equality, with interracial marriage portrayed as a normal aspect of Cuba’s culturally mixed society. Sab is the only known feminist/abolitionist novel from Latin America, combining the two consistent themes of Tula’s work: freedom and voluntary marriage for all races, along with freedom and voluntary marriage for both genders.As one of the world’s earliest feminist writers, Tula campaigned against the archaic custom of arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls. In fact, Sab is thought to be inspired by real people Avellaneda met at the age of 15, when she was sent away to a country estate “to rest,” after rejecting an arranged marriage that would have been profitable for her family. Mocked, despised, and punished by disappointed relatives, she went on to reject another arranged marriage later.I hope that Tula’s belief in equal rights for all will inspire young readers, who are so often challenged to make their own decisions about right and wrong. I also hope the book will help them become aware that many of the great women writers from earlier centuries are being rediscovered in modern times. Finally, I hope it will be used in classrooms to stimulate discussion about current issues of involuntary marriage, still so common in many parts of the world.[Blog] Editor’s Note:

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, The Firefly Letters, and The Wild Book. She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs. Her latest book, The Lightning Dreamer was released today.Congratulations to Margarita on the release of her newest book!

– Used with permission. Originally published at“Women’s History Month across the kidlitosphere, the community of bloggers specializing in children’s and young adult literature . . . We hope the blog will serve as both a resource and an inspiration for librarians, educators, and parents, and all who are interested in the intersection of women’s history and literature for children and teens.”


The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Margarita Engle

Engle’s historical fiction novel in free verse introduces readers to Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a Cuban author, feminist, and antislavery activist in the 1800s who rebelled against her mother’s resistance to girls’ reading and writing as well as her insistence on a forced marriage to increase the family’s wealth. Tula (Avellaneda’s nickname), a gifted storyteller is thirteen when the story begins. She is allowed to visit the nearby convent for lessons in embroidery and the saints; while there, she spends time reading in the convent library. “Each day, after my lessons, the nuns/let me visit their marvelous library,/where I feel as if I have entered/heaven on earth.” There she first reads the poems of the Cuban rebel poet José María Heredia, which fuel her determination to fight injustice of all types through her poetry and plays. “I long to write like Heredia,/ but what do I know of great cities/and the wide lives of men?/ . . . I’m just a silenced girl.” After refusing to be part of two arranged marriages by the age of 15, she is sent to live with her grandfather and then her uncle in the country. While her uncle travels, Tula “dare[s] to explore the mansion./ . . . For the first time in my life,/I’ve been released from the walls/that trap women.” Tula’s story is mostly told through her own voice, but others, including those of Mamá, the former slave and cook Caridad, the nuns, her loyal ally and brother Manuel, are interspersed throughout. They add perspective to her musings as they describe their own fears, longings, and heartaches. Engle has loosely based much of the novel on Avellaneda’s semi-autobiographical romantic novel “Sab,” published in 1841. Telling Tula’s story in lyrical free verse makes such sense, as she is known for her poetry as well as her novels. Engle captures not only somewhat typical teenage angst, but also her spirit and the origin of her life as a well-known feminist and abolitionist. A quick read, the book will inspire readers to be more tolerant while introducing them to a little known female poet. It would be of great value in literature, social studies, or women’s rights units. Historical notes, samples of both Avellaneda’s and Heredia’s poems, and sources are included. 2013, Harcourt Children’s, Ages 12 to 18, $16.99. REVIEWER: Peg Glisson
ISBN: 9780547807430

The Wild Book

Margarita Engle

This lyrically composed novel in verse, based on the life of the author’s grandmother, is set in Cuba in 1912, when eleven-year-old Fefa is first diagnosed with “word blindness,” or dyslexia. While the doctor treats the diagnosis as an irrevocable and untreatable scar, Mama responds by giving Fefa a blank book and the instructions to use it for writing: “Throw wildflower seeds/ all over each page . . . Let the words sprout/ like seedlings,/ then relax and watch/ as your wild diary/ grows.” It is not an easy task: Fefa is mocked by her siblings, dizzied by the glowing white pages, and frightened about the possible consequences of her inability to read. In the end, however, Fefa’s slow and observant style of reading saves the family from a dangerous situation. The plotting, though carefully constructed, is secondary here to the remarkable, intimate depiction of Fefa’s struggle with dyslexia; Engle is masterful at using words to evoke this difficulty, and even those readers unfamiliar with the condition will understand its meaning through her rich use of imagery and detail (“The skin of a frog/feels just as slippery/and tricky as a wild/inky word”). An author’s note provides information about the real life Josefa de la Caridad Uria Pena as well as some basic information about dyslexia. Review Code: R — Recommended. 2012, Harcourt, Grades 4-7, $16.99. REVIEWER: Hope Morrison (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 9780547581316

The Hurricane Cancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle recounts the often brutal relationship between indigenous people and conquistadors in a multilayered story built around a Caribbean pirate shipwreck in 1509. Quebrado (the broken one) is a boy of mixed blood part indigenous Taino and part Spanish who was taken from his (Cuban) island home and enslaved. He is on the pirate ship with the captain, Talavera, and the pirate’s hostage, Ojeda, both conquistadors, when it’s caught in a storm. Quebrado is rescued by Narido, a young fisherman in love with Caucubu, daughter of his island village’s chieftan. Quebrado befriends the young lovers, who run away because the chief has promised his daughter to another. Meanwhile, Talavera and Ojeda make it to the island and are found by the villagers who took in Quebrado. They can’t speak the Taino language so must rely on Quebrado to speak for them. Quebrado shares his painful history as he speaks to the men’s fate. “After dancing and sphere games / the village cacique is willing / to execute my enemies / or banish them forever. / The choice is mine.” Engle’s poems in multiple voices pulse with feeling, whether it’s the passion of the star-crossed lovers, Quebrado’s desire for a place to belong, or the dismissiveness, arrogance, and eventual desperation of the two men who thought they were destined to conquer them all in a story woven from fact and fiction. Only Quebrado is a wholly fictional character. CCBC Category: Poetry. 2011, Henry Holt, 145 pages, Age 12 and older, $16.99. REVIEWER: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2012).

ISBN: 9780805092400

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

Margarita Engle

Engle spins her latest historical novel-in-verse from the actual diaries of a 19th-century suffragette, Fredrika Bremer, who jettisoned her privileged existence in Sweden to travel and take notes on the plight of the poor. In 1851 Cuba, Bremer was assisted by another real-life figure, Cecilia, a pregnant African slave assigned as her translator by Bremer’s host, a sugar baron. A third character is invented—Elena, the merchant’s 12-year-old daughter who, through her interaction with Fredrika and Cecilia, grows aware of systemic injustice and her power to do something about it. As in her other novels, Engle (The Surrender Tree\n) writes in free verse, alternating among the characters’ perspectives. Cecilia’s story is the most poignant: Her father gave her to kidnappers in exchange for a stolen cow, and her unborn child also faces becoming a slave. But it’s Elena who gives the plot momentum with a bold and risky choice that signals her own transformation. This slim, elegant volume opens the door to discussions of slavery, women’s rights, and the economic disparity between rich and poor. 2010, Henry Holt, Ages 10–up, $16.99. REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly.

ISBN: 9780805090826

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle For Freedom

Margarita Engle

This haunting book of free verse tells the story of Rosa de Bayamesa, a nurse who uses medicinal plants and herbal remedies to help heal soldiers, slaves, rebels, and refugees during Cuba’s three wars for independence from Spain, 1868-1898. Based on actual events and real people, the poems outline Rosa’s life from a young slave girl in 1850, learning about healing plants and flowers, through 30 years of war as a self-appointed nurse, seeking freedom, and fighting death and sickness with her natural potions. The author uses several voices to convey the longing for freedom, the hope for peace, the fear of detection, and the sorrow and horror of war. Jose Varona, a freed slave, marries Rosa and helps her establish (and hide) makeshift hospitals in forests, mountains, and caves. Silvia, a young refugee, escapes the reconcentration camp and joins Rosa to serve as a nurse and learn the healing cures. The man known as the Lieutenant of Death, who has grown up hunting slaves, vows to find and kill Rosa to eliminate the symbol of hope and resistance she has become. The alternating perspectives both refine the characters and dramatically move the narrative forward. The verse is clear, concise, and compelling. This is a wonderful book, powerful and simple at the same time. The author offers a personal connection and a historical note and time line at the back of the book that help the reader realize that real people faced these fears and hardships. The book offers an excellent way to introduce and promote discussion of historical events such as Cuba’s fight for independence, the Spanish-American war, and slavery. This is that rare book where the remembrance of it is even more powerful than the reading of it. Nonfiction, Highly Recommended. 2008, Holt, Ages 14 up. $16.95. REVIEWER: Ellen Simmons (The Lorgnette – Heart of Texas Reviews).

ISBN: 9780805086744

Updated 06/01/13

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