Thursday, April 29, 2010

Double Review: Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle and Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

Found via: The Amelia Bloomer Project

As you've no doubt heard by now, April is National Poetry Month. Which means nothing to me, since my relationship to poetry has been well documented in other places on this blog. But I happened to read two books this month that not only share some thematic qualities, but were written totally in verse. Also, I have finally figured out what it takes to get me to like your verse novel. But that's the sort of revelation best left for the end (I am such a tease!)

Margarita Engle definitely has her niche: write books about little known parts of Cuba's history in poetry format. Last year I reviewed (and was underwhelmed by) Tropical Secrets, about Holocaust survivors taking refuge in Cuba. While I wasn't a fan of that book, I wanted to take a chance on Firefly Letters because it was described as a suffrage story, about Swedish suffragist Fredrika Bremer's 1851 trip to Cuba. Fredrika was historically accompanied by a slave, Cecilia, who was the only one in the area who spoke English well enough to act as a translator. Fredrika and Cecilia are two of our narrators, each contributing poems about her experiences in Cuba, one as a foreign tourist and the other as a teenage, pregnant slave. The third character is the fictional Elena, the privileged daughter of the family that owns Cecilia and is playing host to Fredrika for the three months of her stay.

Cecilia and Fredrika have the more active roles, as wealthy women and girls were expected to stay home. So Fredrika's and Cecilia's poems are about traveling the countryside and meeting slaves, while Elena's poems are limited to being observations about the world around her and introspective bits about how meeting Fredrika, a woman with so much more freedom than she has, is changing her thoughts and opinions.

Crossing Stones is another multi-narrator bit of historical fiction, this time 1917 in Michigan on the eve of the first World War. The three narrators are Muriel, strong-willed and outspoken; Ollie, her brother who is desperate to grow up; and Emma, next door neighbor, Muriel's friend, and Ollie's love-interest (who shares the attraction). This is a much broader story than Firefly Letters, as through Ollie's eyes we see some of the horrors of trench warfare in Europe during the war. The three narrators share their hopes and dreams and conflicts about the war, while also going through the more mundane tasks of rural Michigan life. The war leaves its scars on both families, and Muriel's family also has to deal with her aunt running off to Washington D.C. to protest in front of the White House, demanding suffrage for women, despite the war that's going on.

I have to say, that describing Firefly Letters as a suffrage book is totally misleading. While I have no doubt that the historical Fredricka Bremer was a suffragist, the focus of the story is more on her work as an abolitionist. Some very basic women's rights are mentioned, ones that are even more basic than the vote, but suffrage isn't ever brought up, which was greatly disappointing.

Firefly Letters also suffers from an extremely simplistic format. It's the exact same format used in Tropical Secrets where every poem uses a standardized stanza format and varies little in length, so you really have to rely on the names at the beginning of the poem to know who is speaking. Crossing Stones uses different styles of poetry as well as shaping the poems to make them distinct: Muriel's poems are free-verse and zig-zag across the page, while Ollie's and Emma's poems are "cupped-hand" sonnets that are roughly circular, giving them an additional connection outside of the growing relationship described in their poems.

While I feel Crossing Stones is the stronger of the two books on most counts, it still left me wanting a little bit more. When Muriel visits DC to see her aunt, I wanted loads more description, since I know a bit about what a dangerous time it was to be a suffragist at the time (unlike today, people didn't protest in front of the White House, so protesters were rare to begin with, let alone women protesters. And then there was the feeling that mere women shouldn't be questioning the president during a time of war). But I think I've figured out when poetry novels work for me.

Last year I loved Because I Am Furniture, an intense story of abuse. After reading the two historical verse novels back to back, I figured out that Because I Am Furniture worked for me because it's a very personal story. It's all about Anke's feelings and emotions. In Firefly Letters and Crossing Stones, not only do we have to learn the backgrounds of multiple characters, but historical settings need to be described as well, and these settings don't always fit neatly into the first person poem structure, leaving me wanting to know more, more, more. So now I think I can approach future verse novels with more confidence - for historical settings, I'm going to need a vested interest in the subject in order to stay interested despite the format (a la Crossing Stones), otherwise I'm going to start skipping them.
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