A new historical novel from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Joy Castro is a work that fills many roles: it extends her trajectory as a master thriller writer, illuminates a little-known slice of history, and honors her family background.
“One Brilliant Flame,” which Castro will officially launch on January 11 in Key West, Florida, takes place in a setting that many are unaware of: 1886 Key West, a historic moment in which the island was the most prosperous city of Florida, thanks to the vibrant cigar industry. It’s also a base for anti-colonial Cuban immigrants, thousands of whom work in the city’s cigar factories and send money to Cuba to support its fight for independence from Spain.
It is also the year of the most devastating fire in Key West history, which raged for nearly 12 hours, damaged more than 15 major cigar factories and caused nearly $2 million in damages. The origins of the fire remain a mystery: many point the finger at the Spanish empire, perhaps motivated to paralyze Key West’s support for Cuban independence, but it is not the only possibility.
The mysteries surrounding the Great Key West Fire help drive the plot of “One Brilliant Flame,” whose six main characters, a group of young friends with a treasure trove of secrets and ambitions, take turns narrating the story. Their personal arcs intertwine and build towards the climax of the story: the Great Fire itself, but also the ways in which the characters’ journeys and relationships come to a head.
It is Castro’s first historical novel and one she never expected to write. She stumbled upon the seeds of the story about two decades ago after her father died by suicide. Castro and her brother found hardcover printed copies of their great-grandfather’s stories as he arrived in Key West as a child in 1869, then grew up as part of the rebel community and became a newspaper printer. They also discovered a 1918 collection of poetry written by their grandfather, who had been a reader — a hired reader who read news, novels and political theory to workers — at a Key West cigar factory.
Castro wondered about the historical value and context of the documents, but never envisioned a novel.
“I thought, ‘Should they be in an archive somewhere? Are they important and do they matter? said Castro, the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies. “But I never thought about a creative job. It just didn’t occur to me until I sat in the research institute in Tampa and learned about the Great Fire. It just hit me.
The institute was the University of Tampa’s “José Martí and Florida’s Immigrant Communities in Cuban Independence and the Dawn of the American Century,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Castro attended in 2019 to learn more about her family history, but the thriller writer’s ears perked up at the Great Fire mystery and that, as she put it, was her “entrance” into the story. story of her.
Castro was also fascinated by the vibrant utopian culture of Key West in the 1880s. It was a society ahead of its time: Cubans of all classes, races, and occupations mingled and displayed a true appreciation for literature, journalism, political theory, and education. There were serious steps towards racial justice, gender equality and fair work: cigar workers often went on strike for better working conditions. And anti-colonial sentiment was strong.
At the San Carlos Institute in Key West – where Castro will launch the book – there was a racially integrated bilingual school even in 1886 – more than 65 years before the WE The Supreme Court ruled Brown v. Board of Education.
“I wanted to bring this moment to life and show people that it’s possible: that we can have a new vision and we can live that vision, if people decide to do it,” Castro said. “In our time, we could certainly benefit from seeing that there was this utopian moment in the past.”
His characters mirror this cultural diversity. They come from across the spectrum in terms of race, class, sexuality, neurodivergence, and more, and struggle with complex family relationships, trauma, and romantic ups and downs. They take turns telling the story — a literary device called perspectivism — which allows readers to see how their personal qualities influence their viewpoints and to compare their true inner lives with how they are seen by others, Castro said . He used this style to make the novel mysterious and propulsive.
The book is a thriller, but for Castro it is also deeply personal. His family’s prints cover the project. One of the main characters, Líbano, is named after his father. Another, Feliciano, is named after his grandfather, and parts of the character’s history mirror his grandfather’s life story. One of the poems that appears in the novel is closely based on one of Feliciano Castro’s poems.
His son was responsible for translating his great-grandfather’s papers into English, lending a larger context to the novel. And when he tours Florida to promote the book early next year, two of his aunts—his father’s sisters—are planning to be at his stop in Gainesville. Castro said they are shocked and touched that the family’s legacy could be of interest to people.
Castro said she’s honored to help illuminate not only her family’s history, but also the history of Cubans in Key West during this critical time, a piece of history she doesn’t want to see disappear.
“It was a significant legacy that was sort of erased, but there was something there,” Castro said. “Not only is there something there, but it’s something really useful that we can draw inspiration and hope from. It’s exciting to be heir to a legacy that’s actually a positive one.