Fictionalized Biography

Dreaming of Freedom

lightning dreamer_hresThe Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
By Margarita Engle
(Harcourt, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

In mid-nineteenth century Spain, Getrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, a Cuban expatriate, wrote poems, plays, and prose expressing her abolitionism. Cuban landowners profited at their slaves’ expense – and so much of Avellaneda’s work was banned in her native land. She also outspoken about her opposition to arranged marriages and the position of women – a sentiment that even most of her fellow abolitionists did not share.

In The Lightning Dreamer, Margarita Engle crafts a fictionalized telling of young Avellaneda’s awakening in free verse. The novel begins when Avellaneda, called Tula, is thirteen. A curious, imaginative girl, Tula is frustrated by her mother’s attempts to limit her access to books and paper. She reads and writes anyway, of course. She also develops a social conscience as she watches the island’s slaves at works – and hears of the atrocities landowners commit against them. During this time, she also becomes acutely aware of her position as a woman: the fact that young women, like slaves, are auctioned off in marriage to the highest bidder. This insight increases her empathy for the enslaved and makes her determined to eschew a loveless marriage and pursue her own identity as a writer and human. Eventually, after much travail and heartbreak, she succeeds.

Deceptively straightforward, Engle’s verse evokes the conflicts of a young girl learning to question the world around her. Different voices, including those of Tula, her family members, their free black cook, and the nuns who teach Tula, narrate the story in turn. Tula, in particular, often speaks in short lines, the better to give each word emphasis:

Mama commands me to hush,
and my stepfather grumbles,
so I try to be quiet,
but silence feels
like an endless
echoing
hallway
of smooth
shiny mirrors
that reflect
my ragged
impatience.

The Lightning Dreamer contains many echoes and mirrors, both in language and narrative. The plight of women forced into arranged marriages mirrors that of slaves sold at auction. A former slave’s dash to freedom resembles a young girl’s refusal to marry without love; another’s unrequited love reminds Tula of her own heartbreak. Tula’s ability to see these parallels underlies her growing compassion for all people.

Often startling, The Lightning Dreamer is a moving introduction to Cuban history and Avellaneda’s life and work. This biographical novel-in-verse should also encourage readers to perceive relationships between sufferings and injustices, past and present.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Dreaming in Verse

The Dreamer
By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Illustrated by Peter Sís
(Scholastic Press, New York, 2010, $17.99)

How do you separate a writer from his words? Where you do draw the line between biography and novel, prose and poetry? In The Dreamer, a fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Pam Muñoz Ryan explores magical and often painful Neruda’s childhood. Peter Sis’s delicate green line drawings capture the poet’s wonderful daydreams and dashed hopes.

Neruda, born Neftalí Reyes, begins life with a sickly body, a vivid imagination, and an overbearing, ambitious father. Together, these three elements nearly prove damning for the young boy. His father, anxious for Neftalí to succeed in medicine or business, discourages – sometimes violently – his son’s interest in writing. He forces Neftalí to swim in strong ocean waters for prescribed periods and rarely shows fondness him affection. Hungry for warmth and understanding, Neftalí is disappointed again and again. But a few kind adults, including a left-leaning journalist uncle, inhabit the young poet’s universe. Slowly, Neftalí accepts that he will never feel close to his father. He pursues his aspirations, develops a strong social conscience, and safeguards the dream world that sustains him.

Fiction about real people often risks dryness and sensationalism. With The Dreamer, Pam Muñoz Ryan transcends the usual constraints of imagined biographies, weaving a lyrical coming-of-age story. Her approach is a fitting and uplifting tribute to Neruda’s life and verse.

Dorothy A. Dahm