The Lightning Dreamer

Houghton Harcourt. Mar. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-80743-0.
Gr 6 Up—Engle has produced a fabulous work of historical fiction about Cuban poet, author, antislavery activist and feminist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Written in free verse, the story tells of how Tula, which was her childhood nickname, grows up in libraries, which she calls "a safe place to heal/and dream…," influenced by the poetry of José María Heredia. In Tula's voice, Engle writes, "Books are door shaped/portals/carrying me/across oceans/and centuries,/helping me feel/less alone." She takes elements from Avellaneda's novel Sab, which is believed to be autobiographical, and creates a portrait of a girl "expected/to live/without thoughts" who will not be forced into an arranged marriage, and who falls in love with a man who wants her to marry the suitor of the woman he has always loved. Tula speaks out against slavery and arranged marriages, finding them both a form of imprisonment. Engle inhabits the voices of various characters from the story, including Avellaneda's mother, who loses her inheritance because of Tula's refusal to accept an arranged marriage, and who ultimately banishes her to live with an uncle.I have always been a little leery of novels in verse because, if there is no artistic reason for the story to take that format, the verse form seems to be little more than a gimmick. Engle is writing historical fiction about a real Cuban poet, and she convinces readers that the story couldn't be told any other way.Activity Ideas: This book is ideal for literature units and can be used across the curriculum. Students can read this as an entry point to the history of Cuba, the issues of slavery and feminism, and Avellaneda's prose and poetry itself. Engle's book lends itself to teaching, and her appendix includes a bibliography of titles that kids will want to explore and research.
"So sorry that I am not / the sort of daughter / my mother can love," laments Tula. At thirteen, she wonders "how many slaves / Mamá will buy with the money / she gains by marrying me to / the highest bidder." Mamá herself twice thwarted her wealthy father by marrying for love; now, however, she schemes to regain her inheritance through her unwilling daughter. Tula's love is language -- the banned words of the poet Heredia "refusing to accept / the existence of slavery" and her own words, "I don't want to be a man, / just a woman / with a voice." Loosely based on the early life of the Cuban novelist and human rights advocate Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-73), this novel in verse follows Tula for the three years that take her into open rebellion and its first consequences; there's also a glimpse of her living independently, as a poet, seven years later. Tula's desperate need to write and her struggle for self-determination resemble that of Pablo Neruda in Pam Muñoz Ryan's splendid The Dreamer (rev. 3/10). Brief, lyrical observations from others -- Mamá, a beloved brother, the nuns who nurture Tula's creative gift -- add dimension to Tula's own voice and the nineteenth-century Cuban setting. "Words / can be as human / as people, / alive / with the breath / of compassion," says the eloquent former slave Caridad. In Engle's able hands, they are just that. A historical note sorts fact from fiction and samples Avellaneda's poetry. joanna rudge long

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