We here at Girls of Summer love a little scandal, especially if it involves strong, smart girls. So, we’re happy to include Margarita Engle’s latest novel-in-verse, The Lightning Dreamer, about Cuba’s great abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose work was once considered so scandalous for its interracial, feminist and abolitionist themes that it was burned.
Never heard of Avellaneda? No problem. Margarita Engle is a master at digging in the dark corners of history to shine a light on figures from Latin American history that you might not otherwise meet. And she does it with impressive results. Engle is the first Latina winner of the Newbery Honor Award, twice the recipient of the
prestigious Pura Belpre´ prize, and the recipient of the 2012 Américas Awards.
In The Lightning Dreamer, we meet Tula (Gómez de Avellaneda’s nickname) as a young girl growing up in early 19th century Cuba. This is the Cuba where slavery is the backbone of the sugar economy, where an educated woman is seen as a threat, and where Tula’s best choice for becoming well-read may actually lie behind the walls of a convent where her access to books would be unfettered.
Tula struggles against her mother’s plans for her marriage, and in this she has several key allies, including her faithful brother, Manuel. Despite every effort to the contrary, Tula awakens to the power of books, the outrage of her own situation, and to the abolitionist movement.
The story is told in Margarita Engle’s signature style: short poignant poems where each character is given a chance to speak. Tula’s voice is strong and unapologetic, but the secondary characters also build her world: her frustrated mother, Manuel, Caridad the servant, the orphans, and the nuns who prove to be pivotal in her education.
It has never been easy to be a strong girl, but Tula reminds us that female visionaries have existed in all countries throughout history. I admire this book for celebrating a woman who was ridiculed and shunned for having ideas that were far ahead of her time. MM