May 10, 2013

Review #24: The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle

Publisher: Harcourt Children’s Books
Format: E-book
Pages: 182
*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Goodreads Summary:

Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.


“Books are door-shaped
Carrying me
Across oceans
And centuries,
Helping me feel
Less alone.

But my mother believes
That girls who read too much
Are unladylike
And ugly,
So my father’s books are locked
In a clear glass cabinet. I gaze
At enticing covers
And mysterious titles,
But I am rarely permitted
To touch
The enchantment
Of words.

When Caridad and I peer
Through the bars of a window,
We see weary slave girls trudging
Along the rough cobblestone street,
With enormous baskets
Of pineapples and coconuts
Balanced on their heads.

Sometimes I feel as if
I can trade my thoughts
For theirs. Are we really
So different, with our heavy
Array of visible
And invisible

So begins the true story of Tula, a courageous 13-year-old girl who lived in Cuba and grew up to be an abolitionist, told in lyrical verse.  Tula is the childhood nickname for Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.

In Cuba during early 19th century a person could not speak out against slavery like one could in the U.S.  Engle writes that “censorship was hard and penalties were severe.  The most daring abolitionists were poets who could veil their work with metaphors.” So that a 13-year-old girl was writing and reading poetry that expressed different views than expected was an enormous deal.

Tula was forbidden to read by her mother from an early age, but thanks to her father, learned to love it while he was still alive. Later finds solace in the library at the convent where she receives lessons on saints, as the nuns are allowed to read books that women outside of the church are not. 

Tula is getting ready to be married off to someone she does not know or love because it is custom, just as it is custom for girls to be uneducated.  Tula explains to her mother she doesn’t wish to be traded off for gold, but her mother doesn’t understand why Tula is more interested in books than in ball gowns and popping out babies. She is worried that no man will want a woman who reads and is full of opinions.  But Tula doesn’t want to “marry a bank account instead of a human.”

So anyways, Tula begins writing poetry when her father dies.  It is her hidden outlet in her oppressive world.  In the convent library, Tula discovers the work of Jose Maria Heredia, a rebel poet, who inspires her to bravely resist her arranged marriage and to fight against slavery and injustice in Cuba.  Tula writes,

“I have discovered injustice
But what good is a witness
Who cannot testify?”

To me, that one stanza is full of so much raw emotional energy and is such a powerful testament to the obstacles that lie in Tula’s path. This stanza is by the nuns at the convent to Tula:

“So many people
Have not yet learned
That souls have no color
And can never
Be owned.”

Tula is distressed after she sees a woman leave her baby at the doorstep just because his skin is brown.  The nuns tell her that most of the “orphans” there are not orphans at all, but merely discarded because some people haven’t learned everyone is worth loving equally.

The Lightning Dreamer is a powerful and mesmerizing story.  The verse flows smoothly and is never jarring.  It is told mostly from Tula’s point of view, but also from the perspectives of her younger brother, Manuel, their Mama, their cook, Caridad, and Sab, a freed slave of mixed heritage that Tula meets at an underground poetry reading.  It is interesting to have the different perspectives and Engle pulls it off beautifully with seamless transitions that keep the story flowing in the same verse yet are obviously different voices.  It was very impressive.

Overall, a moving account of Tula’s story and I actually, ASTONISHINGLY!, wished the book were longer. 

“I live at the center of two storms,
One of wind, the other a hurricane
Of the spirit, a storm of emotions
That helps me fight back
With strong words
Whenever life is unfair
And I feel

*Be sure to check out the Take Me Away feature post tomorrow, which will be on Cuba.*

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  1. So cool! I'd never heard of this poet so thank you very much for introducing me so that I have the opportunity to learn more!

  2. I love novels in verse! This sounds amazing!!


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