Peg's Reviews > The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist
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, and 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.
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