The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba

by Margarita Engle


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A powerful novel in verse about an early women’s rights pioneer and the journey to Cuba that transformed her life.

When Fredrika Bremer asked the Swedish Consulate to find her a quiet home in the Cuban countryside, she expected a rustic thatched hut, not this luxurious mansion in Matanzas, where Elena, the daughter of the house, can barely step foot outside.

The freedom to roam is something that women and girls in Cuba do not have. Yet when Fredrika sets off 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 sneaks out of the house 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, which is young adult historical fiction based on a true story, 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 story about a little-known early feminist. It's a Pura Belpre Honor Book for Narrative and a Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year, by Margarita Engle, the Newbery Honor winning author of The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, Tropical Secrets, and many other books.

A Pura Belpré Honor Book
An American Library Association Notable Children's Book
A Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year

“Like the firefly light, Engle's poetry is a gossamer thread of subtle beauty weaving together three memorable characters who together find hope and courage. Another fine volume by a master of the novel in verse.” -Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“This slim, elegant volume opens the door to discussions of slavery, women's rights, and the economic disparity between rich and poor.” -Publishers Weekly

“Through this moving combination of historical viewpoints, Engle creates dramatic tension among the characters, especially in the story of Elena, who makes a surprising sacrifice.” -Booklist

“This engaging title documents 50-year-old Swedish suffragette and novelist Fredrika Bremer's three-month travels around Cuba in 1851. . . . The easily digestible, poetic narrative makes this a perfect choice for reluctant readers, students of the women's movement, those interested in Cuba, and teens with biography assignments.” —School Library Journal

“The author has a gift for imbuing seemingly effortless text with powerful emotions. . . .This uncommon story will resonate.” —The Bulletin

The imagistic, multiple first-person narrative works handily in revealing Bremer, an alert and intelligent woman in rebellion against her background of privilege.” —The Horn Book

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250110961
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 140,689
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.51(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

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, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives with her husband in northern California.

Read an Excerpt


Matanzas, Cuba


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"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Margarita Engle.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
BornBookish on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a beautifully written middle grade novel about life and slavery in Cuba, based on the writings of the real life Fredrika Bremer.The story is told from four alternating viewpoints; Elana, Cecilia, Fredrika, and Beni.-Elena is a plantation owners daughter, trapped within the walls of her own home, never allowed to go out and catch fireflies or walk beneath the moonlight.¿I sit alone in my roomat the ornately barred window,embroidering curlicueslike the fancy ironworkthat separates mefrom the rest of the world.¿-Cecilia is a fifteen-year old slave from Africa who was sold by her own father in exchange for a cow. She works on Elena¿s family¿s sugar plantation as a translator.¿If I had knownthat my father would trade mefor a stolen cow,I would have run awayinto the forestto live in a nestmade of dreamsand green leaves.¿-Fredrika is a rich man¿s daughter, who gave up the aristocratic lifestyle to wander the world and be a writer.¿My sketchbook is burstingwith storiestold by dances,stories about life on two shores¿two distant lands,Africa and Cuba,joined and also separatedby the endless flowof ocean wavesthat soundlike music¿¿-Beni is Cecilia¿s husband, chosen for her by Elena¿s father. There are only a couple of pages told from Beni¿s perspective, but I found it nice to see his thoughts on Cecilia and their marriage instead of just having her point of view. Fredrika believes in a world of equality, not just between men and women, but also between the races. She goes to Cuba to write about slavery on the island in hopes of bringing about change.Against all odds the three girls form a strong friendship filled with shared hope for a brighter future. I found Engle¿s writing to be very lyrical and beautiful. My only wish was that it would have lasted longer.
YouthGPL on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Elly says, "Very quick read, multicultural chapter book based on true story of Frederika Bremer's life-altering journey to Cuba. Told poetically in four voices: African slave girl, 15, married and pregnant, her husband, also a slave, the daughter of the house - 12, soon to be in an arrranged marraige, and the Swedish writer, fascinated with the culture but appalled by the inequities. Good for that class at GCC that needs the multicultural chapter book."
amandacb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Firefly Letters is a collection of poems written by Engle that vacillate between Fredrika, Elena, and Cecilia; at first, I was apprehensive of the slim book, but quickly I was drawn into the simply written but very compelling poetry.Fredrika sets off for Cuba in a fit of wanderlust, throwing off the chains of expectations placed on women during that time and spending her days writing and sketching. Her main concerns are women¿s rights, and while she is amazed at the beauty of Cuba, she is appalled at the conditions of slavery and women¿s rights in the supposed paradise. Even the daughter of her rich host, Elena, is subject to strict regulations, as Elena is set to marry a man chosen by her parents.Cecilia is the house slave, valuable thanks to her translation skills; she is pregnant and married at the age of fifteen to a man she calls a stranger. The three women find ties that bind them together as they explore the island with Fredrika, and both Elena and Cecilia find inner strength they never knew they possessed. Fireflies become a metaphor for the plight of the women, as the lovely and delicate creatures are constantly captured and even de-winged by Cuban natives; the ladies take it upon themselves to go nightly to free the fireflies.A lovely work, with many springboards for historical research into Cuban history, women¿s suffrage, and language arts, The Firefly Letters is definitely worth reading, either in one sitting or in small bites.
twonickels on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Swedish traveler Frederika Bremer, young slave Cecilia, and daughter of the Cuban gentry Elena, are three young women who have had their lives very specifically laid out in front of them by society¿s expectations. Frederika and Elena, as girls brought up in wealthy families in the 1850s, have enjoyed the many privileges that their class offers, but have been constrained by the many restrictions and few opportunities available to women at the time. Frederika reacts to these restrictions by leaving her family and blazing her own path as a feminist and traveler, while Elena accepts her position without complaint or question. Cecilia, who was sold into slavery by her father as a child, has not accepted her circumstances, but has never had an opportunity to channel her anger and homesickness. They are brought together when Frederika leaves her home country of Sweden, traveling without a chaperone, to explore the Cuban countryside and tell the stories of the women and slaves in Cuba, in the hopes that ¿stories can lead to a change in laws¿ (pg. 27. Quoted from ARC ¿ language is subject to change.)Frederika and Cecilia are based on real people, and Engle has clearly used their real-life situations, feelings and conversations, as recorded in Frederika¿s published diary, to inform and flesh out these characters. Frederika Bremer was a feminist and a traveler, and she spent three months exploring Cuba along with her real-life translator Cecilia. They are compelling women, and Engle¿s spare free verse poetry mixes their current circumstances and memories from childhood in ways that illuminate both. Elena is the only major character who is not based on an actual person, and you can feel it. Her story, of an aristocratic young woman who at first fears and distrusts the strange feminist who comes to her house, but gradually comes to agree with her, is neither original nor especially well told. Elena eventually makes a choice that is lovely, but does not ring true ¿ I did not feel that I had seen her character go through the growth that would be necessary to make that choice.The short chapters alternate between the viewpoints of these three women, with a few brief interjections from Cecilia¿s husband that did show another side of life in Cuba, but did not especially add to the story of Bremer¿s visit. Engle is at her best when she stays close to the story of Frederika and Cecilia. It is the moments where these two women discover each others¿ history that are most illuminating. Despite their wildly different circumstances, they forge a connection based not on similar life experiences, but on the similar feelings of loneliness and constraint that their experiences have engendered. Cecilia¿s chapters, which are very straight-forward in their telling of her unimaginable life, are the most moving. The spare form, which did not allow Engle to fully show Elena¿s transformation, is much more effective in telling Cecilia¿s story, where the reader benefits from having time and space to consider Cecilia¿s stories and make connections between them. When Cecilia¿s chapter on her forced marriage and pregnancy is ended with a few short lines imagining that she is free of all her attachments, the simplicity of the poetry allows her thoughts to shine through and lets the reader to feel their resonance.This short novel in verse is a very quick read and would make a great choice for reluctant readers doing historical fiction projects. But it¿s a carefully constructed story that will also appeal to curious readers who will want to follow this story¿s characters and themes further ¿ it has certainly inspired me to learn more about the life of Frederika Bremer. Several books about Frederika¿s life and Cuba in the 1800s are listed in a welcome reference section, although it would have been nice to include some materials in this list that are more accessible to middle grade readers.
ewyatt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Told in verse, the story alternates between Frederika, a Swedish suffragette visiting Cuba, Cecilia, a slave from Africa that serves as her translator, and Elena, the daughter of the wealthy family who serve as Frederika's hosts. The book explores the idea of freedom for women in 1850s Cuba, particularly freedom for slaves. The trip changes all three of the women. Frederika and Cecilia travel the country and share their experiences interacting with the many types of people in Cuba. A beautifully written, sparse yet moving book.
crochetbunnii on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Short poems tell the story of Fredricka Bremer, a women born into Swedish nobility who gives up her birthright in order to be free to roam the country and write and her experience in Cuba, where she seeks to find Eden, but can't overlook the slavery and human suffering. This story is told through the eyes of three characters, Fredricka, Elena-a plantation owner's daughter who is prisoner in her own home, and Cecilia-a slave from Africa. The three women find out they have more in common than they first believe and seek a way to make themselves feel free through their unity.
khallbee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1851, an iconoclastic aristocrat from Sweden traveled to Cuba in order to evangelize on the topic of women's rights. While in Cuba, this woman--a real-life suffragette named Frederika Bremmer--made friends with the 12-year-old daughter of her host family as well as their slave girl, a pregnant 15-year-old abducted as a child from her native Congo and forced to marry a near stranger. United by Frederika's vision and persistence, the two become fast friends. Told through free-verse poetry, this humble and lyrical story is told from the perspective of four characters: Elena, the host family's daughter, Cecelia, their slave, Beni, her husband, and Frederika herself. Each short chapter (usually only a page and a half in length) is titled with the narrator's name, making it easier for readers to distinguish between characters' voices. While she uses little figurative language or other poetic devices, Engle still manages to create a hauntingly beautiful tale, enhanced by each narrator's description of his or her homeland. Throughout the novel, fireflies (or cocuyos) are used as metaphors for freedom and imprisonment, and the moon is a symbol of independent thinking. Despite the understated beauty of the language, Engle's story is still very much rooted in reality--Cecelia has an incurable disease and Elena will marry at 14 whether she wants to or not. The story doesn't end with Frederika saving the day, although with Elena's help, they manage to ameliorate Cecelia's suffering and bring her hope for the future. The subject matter is handled delicately enough that younger teens will grasp what is going on without being unduly shaken, and older teens will still appreciate the story for its lyricism and grace. Recommended for grades 7 through 10.
juniperSun on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Altho this book is a series of poems/free verse, I feel I learned much about the lives of 3 very different women in a time and cultures so different from mine, and how they are changed by knowing each other, each yearning for freedom.
LisMB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My daughter checked this out from the library and once she finished she handed to me and asked that I read it too. I absolutely loved it. It took me on a journey into three lives, to a time long ago. A time when it was very valuable and rare to have freedom. A MUST READ!!!
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Ok this book is really bad im not reading it ever again
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She nodded and padded off.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well Im moving to the new territory. And guess what? I found the fresh-kill pile! Its a pile of fresh-kil free for the taking. Well any way.. see you there.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hai. Wanna chat?