Margarita Engle is past master (mistress) of the art of the verse novel. Her latest, The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba (Henry Holt, March 2010), is a fictionalized account of Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer's three-month visit to Cuba in 1851. Of the three major voices Engle uses to tell her story, it is, perhaps not surprisingly, the adult Fredrika's I hear best:
On the coldest, darkest night
of Sweden's long winter,
I used to dress up as the Queen of Light,
with pine branches and candles
balanced on my head.
I walked carefully
to avoid setting my hair on fire
as I carried the traditional gift
of saffron buns to my parents.
I was ravenous, but I was permitted only
to keep one half of one spicy golden pastry
for myself, even though girls
in other, more humble homes
were allowed to feast
during that midwinter celebration
of hope for spring. (21)
Fredrika's memories of her child- and young adulthood in Sweden emerge against the backdrop of a lush tropical island, and the stories of two other young women: Elena, from a wealthy family, and Cecilia, an African slave. They are strikingly different, yet similarly circumscribed.
I've never been to Cuba or Sweden, but my children's heritage comprises both; so we celebrate Santa Lucia's Day as Fredrika did (except with electric candles) at the beginning of the Christmas season and Three Kings' Day, as per the Cuban tradition, at the end of it. We're lucky we can eat all the buns we want.
[The gorgeous cover art by Ana Juan connects the book's recurring image of the Cuban fireflies or cocuyos with the candles worn by the Queen of Light.]