Valent, Jennifer Erin. 2008. Fireflies in December. Tyndale. 343 pages.
The summer I turned thirteen, I thought I'd killed a man.
This one had me at hello. It did. Jennifer Erin Valent has created an unforgettable narrator in the young--barely thirteen--Jessilyn Lassiter. I know unforgettable is a strong word. One not to be tossed around lightly. But I'm sincere when I say that her story is one that will stay with me. (The book, quite honestly, reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird.)The writing was crisp enough, charming enough, that I think it has lasting power...at least in my opinion. The setting? A small Virginian town in 1932. Our heroine, Jessilyn, has a best friend, Gemma, who is black. When Gemma's parents are killed in an accidental fire--a lightning strike to their home--the Lassiters take Gemma into their home. While the community is supportive at first--thinking this will be a temporary situation, a day or two until other arrangements can be made, soon the town begins to turn on their own. Life for the Lassiters will never--can never--be quite the same again.
It's the story of a summer that changes lives. A summer that young Jessilyn will never forget. A summer that captures all the emotions--highs and lows--of being thirteen and just beginning to notice boys and think about l-o-v-e. That uncertainty about who you are and what you want and need.
This is a powerful novel about life, love, friendship, grief, sorrow, hate, and cruelty. It's a novel about growing up. Read it because it is an amazing coming of age story (bildungsroman). Or read it because it is a fascinating examination of racism. Or read it because of the Southern flavor--a writing style that just melts in your mouth like a buttered biscuit. Just read it.
"You can't go tryin' to figure other people, baby. People have all sorts of reasons why they are what they are. Some people are scared because life's been so hard on 'em."
"But they're still wrong."
"Don't give us the right to be hateful to 'em. They're wrong--that I can say, but I can't say I know all that goes on in their hears, can I? So best I can do is pray for 'em. Leave'em to God."
I was tired, and I laid my head back, looked out at the star-dotted sky, and sighed. "Sometimes I don't know what God expects us to do."
Daddy didn't say anything for a minute or so, and then he reached up and caught a firefly as it glowed beside him. "See this light?" he asked me when the firefly lit up his hand.
"That light is bright enough to light up a little speck of the night sky so a man can see it a ways away. That's what God expects us to do. We're to be lights in the dark, cold days that are this world. Like fireflies in December."
Then Daddy opened his hand, and we both sat and watched the insect crawl around for a moment before taking off into the dimness.
"Ain't much lightin' one of them can do, Daddy," I said.
"Not by himself. But give him some company, and you'd get a good piece of light."
"Don't look to me like we got much company in the town."
He leaned over and patted my knee softly. "It's got to start somewhere, Jessilyn. It's got to start somewhere." (63-64)
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible