Posted by: Sally Ingraham | August 6, 2014

Discovering Cuba with Margarita Engle

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I found The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle in my local library branch and decided it was time to visit Cuba. I’ve been intrigued by the place for years but have been woefully lax in educating myself about it. Engle’s book, a novel in verse (I’m on a novel-in-verse kick!) was an excellent jumping off point, and as you can tell from the picture above, I have continued to embrace her as my teacher. How could I resist such lovely books anyway? (And what fun it was to gather them together from four different regional libraries!)

All four books are historical fiction, and each one brings to life incredible people whom I had never heard of before. They explore slavery, the oppression of women, and how the written word can be a source of freedom and power. They all beautifully evoke the landscape of Cuba, especially the countryside. Their touch seems light at times, pretty poetry dulling the pain of truly terrible events, and I didn’t find the voice especially distinctive in any of the books (the author’s voice was clear but the characters’ voice wasn’t unique). Regardless, I was fascinated by them and grateful that Engle decided to share these important people and events with me, and with teens in this country whose knowledge of Cuba may be limited to the missile crisis, cigars, and the navy base at Guantánamo Bay.

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano is the first chronologically of the four books I read. It’s also the most intense. Born a slave in 1797 in Cuba, Juan grew up as the pet wonder-child of his mistress, Señora Beatriz de Justiz de Santa Ana, who made him call her Mama even though his real mother was her handmaiden. Slaves were denied any kind of education, but Juan could memorize anything he learned by ear, and someone taught him to read in secret. Although his parents were freed and his own freedom was promised when Doña Beatriz died, Juan was whisked away by a new owner – the psychotically cruel María de la Concepción, la Marquesa del Prado Ameno.

Engle’s book jumps from the perspectives of Juan, his mother and father, his two mistresses, the sympathetic son of la Marquesa, and various overseers who throughout Juan’s life as her slave administered the punishments that la Marquesa came up with. Juan sought refuge from his abusive life in the poetry of others, and then in his own words. His talents were noticed and appreciated by others, but agonizing punishments were his only reward from la Marquesa. He had to find the courage to run away, and keep running.

Aside from the lack of real distinction in voice from character to character, Engle’s use of poetry to tell this story is perfect. The plot moves well, but a lot of the drama is in the mind of Juan, as he works out his place in the world – both the place seen by his mistresses and the truer one he sees for himself.

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist is Engle’s impression of the childhood of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, (1814-1873). The daughter of a wealthy family with ties to the Spanish aristocracy, Tula (a childhood nickname) was the victim of what was in her mind another form of slavery. Forbidden by her mother to read much or write, she would do both in secret and burn her scribblings. She refused an arranged marriage, and while at a country estate where she’d been sent to “rest”, she fell in love with a slave. She was inspired by a fellow Cuban, the poet José María Heredia who was banished from Cuba for his abolitionist views and desire for independence from Spain. Tula realized that she could use her pen to address the oppression she saw around her, giving a voice to those denied one and challenging anyone who might try to chain her heart.

There were again multiple points of view in this book, although Tula was the main voice. Her loyal brother chimed in, as did her overbearing mother, the Nuns who let her read their books, the family slave Caridad whom Tula encouraged to run away, and the boy she fell in love with. Engle drew many characters from the famous book that Avellaneda wrote as a young woman – Sab – which was supposedly based on her experiences. That interracial love story was one of the first abolitionist novels (published 11 years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The ideas that Engle imagined the girl Tula cultivating were ones that brought Avellaneda much renown and notoriety as an adult – that all people were equal and free to love and live as their hearts directed.

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba is about Fredrika Bremer’s visit to Cuba in 1851. She was Sweden’s first female novelist and an early advocate of equal rights for women. Her letters and diaries from the time mentioned Cecilia, her African-born translator, and most of the events that inspired Engle’s novel. As usual though, Engle imagined a few characters of her own, and in this story the balance was between the slave Cecilia, and Elena, the daughter of slave-owners. Elena was kept like a bird in a cage by her family, stitching away at items for her hope chest, an ironically named item, for soon she’d be hopelessly married off to whomever her father chose. Cecilia was sold into slavery by her own father when she was 8. Both girls were challenged and inspired by the strange Swedish lady who could travel at will, believed in education for girls, and when in church knelt in the back with the slaves. Fredrika was in turn profoundly effected by her relationship with the two girls, and by both the beauty and the horrors she witnessed in Cuba.

This was the simplest story of the four, detailing a quiet revolution in the lives of just a few people. The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom was epic by comparison. It began in 1850 with Rosa, the little witch, a slave girl skilled in the healing arts, curing ailments that occurred on the plantation, and nursing escaped slaves back to health so that they might escape again or die trying. Then it followed Rosa through three wars. Some slaves were freed, their owners joined forces with them, and from 1868-78 a war for independence was fought against Spain. Rosa escaped to the jungle with her healing skills, and there she and her husband José maintained gorilla hospitals, hunted all the while by Lieutenant Death, a slave catcher. Rosa helped whomever was suffering, rebel soldier or Spanish troop, for ten long years, and then again from 1878-80 when the Little War wracked the country. Abolition of slavery came slowly throughout 1880-86, but still Lieutenant Death dogged Rosa’s steps. Living and healing in caves and secret hospitals in the jungle, Rose came through the final war (1895-1898), growing old as Cuba was tossed from Spanish to American hands. She patched up Cubans, Spaniards, and Rough Riders with equal care.

Engle did an excellent job of distilling that much history. Rosario Castellanos Castellanos was a real person among many jungle nurses who tended the fallen and ill throughout the years of war. Little is known about her or her husband, so Engle was free to let her imagination patch the holes as Rosa patched the bodies. In this book more than the others, Engle’s own knowledge of the jungle world shines. Childhood visits to Cuban relatives bred in her a love for tropical nature, and Engle became a botanist, turning to writing later in life. The jungle is as much a character in this story as Rosa, or Silvia – the child who joined Rosa after escaping from one of the reconcentration camps established by Imperial Spain’s Captain-General Weyler.

Rosa is too busy stitching wounds to write, but the theme in Engle’s books of poetry and the power of words is still strong. The exiled Cuban poet José Martí, whose writing helped inspire the war effort on the side of the rebels, is mentioned – when he returns to Cuba to fight and is killed in his first battle, unfortunately. The diaries that rebels kept proved to be important later as historical documents, and the character Silvia is determined to record her experiences. It is also worth noting that the Spanish-American War was known as the “journalists war” because American newspapermen were influential in marketing the war and swaying American sympathy toward intervention.

The Surrender Tree won a Newbery Honor in 2009, the first one ever given to a Latino writer. It’s my favorite of the four books I read by Engle, but all of them are worth reading, and all of them have sparked off other sources of investigation. I plan to read everything else Margarita Engle has written, and look forward to learning a lot more about Cuba’s fascinating and important history.


For further reading about the author, here’s a good interview from 2009.



  1. […] was drifting in this direction already this year, with my discovery of August Wilson and recent obsession with the Cuba of Margarita Engle’s books. It has also been interesting to explore the […]

  2. […] Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, via the one group read I took part in (thanks again Richard!) I explored Cuba‘s lands and history through Margarita Engle’s beautiful books, and became obsessed with […]

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