A new historical novel from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Joy Castro is a work that wears many hats: it extends her trajectory as a master thriller writer, illuminates a little-known slice of history and honors her own family background.
“One Brilliant Flame,” which Castro will officially launch Jan. 11, in Key West, Florida, plays out against a backdrop that many are unfamiliar with: the Key West of 1886, a moment in time when the island is Florida’s most prosperous city, thanks to the bustling cigar industry. It’s also home base for anti-colonial immigrants from Cuba, thousands of whom work in the city’s cigar factories and send money back to Cuba to support its fight for independence from Spain.
It’s also the year of Key West’s most devastating fire in history, which raged for nearly 12 hours, damaged more than 15 large cigar factories and caused nearly $2 million in damages. The fire’s origins remain a mystery: Many point a finger at the Spanish empire, which was possibly motivated to cripple Key West’s support for Cuban independence – but that’s not the only possibility.
The mysteries surrounding the Great Fire of Key West help drive the plot of “One Brilliant Flame,” whose six main characters, a group of young friends with a trove of secrets and ambitions, take turns narrating the story. Their personal arcs intertwine and build toward the story’s apex – the Great Fire itself, but also the ways in which the characters’ journeys and relationships come to a head.
It’s Castro’s first historical novel, and one she never expected to write. She happened upon the story’s seeds about two decades ago, after her father died by suicide. Castro and her brother found bound, printed copies of her great-grandfather’s accounts of coming to Key West as a child in 1869, then growing up as part of the rebel community and becoming a newspaper printer. They also discovered a poem collection from 1918 written by their grandfather, who had been a lector – a hired reader who read news, novels and political theory to workers – in a Key West cigar factory.
Castro wondered about the documents’ historical value and context, but never imagined a novel.
“I did think, ‘Should these be in an archive somewhere? Are they important, and do they matter?” said Castro, Willa Cather Professor of English and ethnic studies. “But I never thought of a creative work. It just did not occur to me until I was sitting in the research institute in Tampa and learning about the Great Fire. It just hit me.”
The institute was the University of Tampa’s “José Martí and the Immigrant Communities of Florida 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’s history, but her thriller writer’s ears perked up at the whodunit of the Great Fire – and that, as she put it, was her “way in” to the story.
Castro was also enchanted with the vibrant, utopian culture of Key West in the 1880s. It was a society ahead of its time: Cubans from across classes, races and occupations intermingled and showed a real appreciation for literature, journalism, political theory and education. There were serious strides toward racial justice, gender equality and fair labor – cigar workers frequently went on strike for better working conditions. And anti-colonial sentiment was strong.
At Key West’s San Carlos Institute – where Castro will launch the book – there was a racially integrated, bilingual school even in 1886 – more than 65 years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided 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 that,” Castro said. “In our own time, we could certainly benefit from seeing that in the past, there was this utopian moment.”
Her characters mirror this cultural diversity. They’re from across the spectrum in terms of race, class, sexuality, neurodivergence and more, and they wrestle with complex family relationships, trauma and romantic ups and downs. They take turns telling the story – a literary device called perspectivism – which enables readers to see how their personal qualities affect their viewpoints, and to contrast their true interior life with how they are seen by others, Castro said. She used this style to make the novel mysterious and propulsive.
The book delivers as a thriller, but for Castro, it’s also deeply personal. Her family’s footprints cover the project. One of the main characters, Líbano, is named for her father. Another, Feliciano, has her grandfather’s name, and portions of the character’s story arc mirror her grandfather’s life story. One of the poems that appears in the novel is closely based on one of Feliciano Castro’s poems.
Her son was responsible for translating her great-grandfather’s documents into English, lending greater context to the novel. And when she tours Florida promoting the book early next year, two of her aunts – her father’s sisters – are planning to be at her stop in Gainesville. Castro said they’re shocked and touched that the family’s heritage could be interesting to people.
Castro said she is honored to help illuminate not just her own family’s history, but the story of Cubans in Key West during this critical time period – a piece of history she doesn’t want to see disappear.
“It was a meaningful heritage that was somewhat erased, but there was something there,” Castro said. “Not only is there something there, but it is something really worthwhile that we can draw inspiration and hope from. That’s exciting – to be the inheritor of a legacy that’s actually positive.”