Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist
by Margarita Engle
Engle, Margarita. The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist. New York, NY: Harcourt, 2013. ISBN 9780547807430
This historical fiction novel is written in verse and takes place in the 19th century. The story is a fictionalized biography about Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as Tula. Tula lives during a time of slavery and arranged marriages. Her mother has forbidden her access to books because she does not believe books and knowledge are an attractive quality for women. During her struggles with her mom trying to marry her off, Tula escapes to a nearby convent where she engrosses herself in the library with poems written by José María de Heredia.
Engle's verses in this book are wealthy in smiles and metaphors, and bring about the emotions of the characters. Each verse is titled with the name of the character speaking in the text. The majority of are spoken by Tula, the main protagonist. This book will definitely enlighten readers on Cuban history, and how education and freedom for women and slaves was prohibited.
One theme of the story is fear. Fear for going against the rules and voicing opinions. Tula's brother, Manuel voices his fear for his sister wanting to stand up and speak the truth for women and slaves. By the end of hte book Manuel becomes inspired by his sister. "I'm shocked by my sister's/ independence, but also inspired./ If a woman can shed all the whims/ of tradition, then so can a man."
Engle does her novel justice by providing a plethora of historical background and notes before and after the story. She also has actual writings by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda after the story along with references and acknowledgments. The story itself is split up into five parts: Suns and Rays, The Orphan Theater, The Marriage Market, See Me as I Am, and The Hotel of Peace.
The only mention of skin color is when Tula talks about a newborn infant who is left at the orphanage, abandoned by it's mother. "When I gaze down at his black eyes/ and warm cinnamon-hued skin." This book is extremely powerful and shows how privilege comes from battles of all different types of underprivileged people throughout history.
Review Excerpts & Awards
- "This is the context for a splendid novel that celebrates one brave woman who rejected a constrained existence with enduring words that continue to sing of freedom." -Booklist starred review
- "Engle adds another superb title to her lengthening list of historical novels in verse...This is a must-have for collections where Engle's other works are known and loved or for anyone in need of a comparative study to our own country's struggle with slavery." -School Library Journal
- "An inspiring fictionalized verse biography of one of Cuba's most influential writers...Fiery and engaging, a powerful portrait of the liberating power of art." -Kirkus
- Winner of the Pura Belpre Honor Award
- VOYA Top Shelf for Middle School Readers 2013 list
More books by Margarita Engle and Cuba.
- The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (9780805086744)
- The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba (9780805090826)
- Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (9780805089363)