The Lightning Dreamer

Written by Margarita Engle
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

Illumination of the 19th-century fight for rights and human dignity turns to another corner of our hemisphere: the island of Cuba. Told in first-person free verse, mostly over the crucial coming-of-age years of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda (1814-1873), this novel pinpoints the spirit and genesis of this abolitionist and fighter for women’s rights.

A gifted storyteller of fierce intelligence, Tula is an outcast in a family with strict rules for women: She is to avoid both a life of the mind and her mother’s mistake of marrying for love. But she has a loyal ally in a brother who shares his books and learning with her. Her world is opened further by the slaves she grows up around and her country’s rich cultures of Spanish, African and indigenous Ciboney-Taino origins. When she is sent to a convent to “rest” after refusing an arranged marriage, she finds in the convent library the works of rebel poet Heredia. They ignite Yula’s own desire to fight injustice through her poetry, plays and an abolitionist novel, Sab, published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The spirit of a great and courageous woman comes shining through this lyrical narrative. Adolescent angst meets the injustices of her own life (she wonders how many of her grandfather’s slaves are her relatives) as Tula discovers that “the soul has no color and can never be owned.”