By Margarita Engle
Available now from Harcourt (Houghton Mifflin)
THE LIGHTNING DREAMER: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist is the story of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, called Tula. She grows up to be a poet, novelist, and playwright who combined abolitionist and feminist views in her writing. As Margarita Engle wrote in her historical note, Tula "helped readers question the way they viewed slavery, interracial marriage, and the broader issue of voluntary marriage" (171, ARC). Engle's novel in verse goes back to when Tula was a child to explore how she became interested in storytelling and radical subjects.
Using poetry to tell the story of a poet is a terrific choice. The poems alternate between character's voices and the verse feels like the rhythm of internal thoughts. It lends immediacy and potency to the emotions felt by the narrators. It's also a good way to bring many points of view to the story without the head hopping becoming too confusing. And the subjects addressed are full of nuance. Tula's immediate concern is her impending marriage. She's fourteen, old enough. Marriage means giving up her freedom. She isn't even supposed to be literate, but her brother and nuns helped her.
Tula's Mamá is one of villains of the novel. She wants Tula to marry an old, rich man and will likely use the money from the marriage to buy slaves. But the marriage is what she thinks is best for her daughter. "Tula needs a wealthy husband/now,/right now,/before she tries to choose her own,/the way I did, without any regard/for her family's/finances" (79, ARC).
Engle, a Newbury Honor recipient, has strong control of the language. Look at the excerpt above - the emphasis on time, on family versus family finances. But it's not distracting language. They're easy to read and clear, delivering a complex history in bites perfect for a young audience.
I found THE LIGHTNING DREAMER fascinating, even though I had never heard of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda before. Her story is sometimes harrowing and often inspiring. I looked up some of her work as soon as I finished THE LIGHTNING DREAMER, eager to read her poetry. I think the weakest part of the novel was a love triangle with a boy named Sab who was already in love with a girl named Carlota, which comes into play near the end of the novel. Turns out they where made up based on speculation that the characters in Tula's first novel Sab where based on real people she'd met while exiled to a country estate. It's not a terrible bit, but somewhat sappy compared to the rest.
THE LIGHTNING DREAMER is a lyrical, poignant look at an influential woman and artist. This is the sort of book that could be broccoli (as in, "Eat your vegetables!"), but the style makes it quite palatable. (Note: I actually love broccoli, but you know what I mean.)
Be sure to check out Clear Eyes, Full Shelves' Novel in Verse Week.