Reviewed by C.J. Darlington
Fireflies in December by Jennifer Erin Valent
"...a tight, finely crafted novel that challenges us to root out any hint of prejudice in our own hearts..."
The summer I turned thirteen, I thought I’d killed a man.
In these first eleven words of Fireflies in December we realize Jessilyn Lassiter’s world is pregnant with change. Not only is she walking that tenuous line between childhood and womanhood, but during the summer of 1932 Jessilyn finds herself in the crosshairs of man’s hatred for his fellow man.
When her best friend Gemma’s parents are tragically killed in a fire, Jessilyn’s father takes the girl in. No matter that she’s as dark as coffee and sticks out in their white family like a sheep in a cow field. Harley Lassiter sees people for their hearts, not their skin color. If only the rest of Calloway County felt the same way. Soon Jessilyn is ostracized by whites and blacks alike. This racial mingling “just ain’t done”, and it isn’t long before the Lassiter family becomes a target for something much more sinister, and deadly. The Klu Klux Klan.
In Fireflies in December Valent has skillfully dropped us into the middle of southern Virginia during a turbulent time in our country’s history. Less than seventy years had passed since the Civil War, and unfortunately not everyone embraced its outcome. The Great Depression’s talons still clung to many families. “Things were poor, especially in our parts, and for having a working farm and a good truck, we were fortunate. We even had some conveniences that other people envied, like a fancy icebox and a telephone...”
Fear has a way of bringing out the worst in folks, and perhaps that’s why racism was still so prevalent in the south of 1932. As I read this novel, I found myself amazed that such hatred existed. Certainly racism still shows up in today’s America, but during the year we’ve elected our first African-American President it’s striking how far we’ve come.
Valent knows how to involve us in the setting. We feel the oppressive humidity of summer and hear the cicadas buzzing. We lie on our backs in bed all day with Jessilyn and Gemma because moving feels like wading through a furnace. And without bogging us down in pages of narrative we understand the anguish Jessilyn suffers when she thinks she killed a man. In fact, Valent could’ve used more exposition and it wouldn’t have detracted. Perhaps it would’ve added even more depth to this coming-of-age story.
Fireflies In December brings to mind the themes and characters of To Kill A Mockingbird. Jessilyn is older than Scout, but just as stubborn. Their fathers stand by what they believe is right, even when everyone else is against them. Jessilyn and Scout both find their lives in danger. However, Valent has a voice and nack for description all her own. Her scenes move quickly, and even if you’re not a historical fiction fan you’ll find yourself drawn in. People are people, whether it be 1932 or 2003. We all feel pain; we’re all searching for meaning. And this becomes clearer as you turn the pages.
The spirituality is never heavy-handed, being shown rather than told, for the most part. The Lassiters are practicing Christians, and they talk about that aspect of their lives like they would anything else. But even when Jessilyn’s parents do share a spiritual insight with her or talk about Jesus it doesn’t feel like a sermon. We’re listening, too, and we glean their nuggets of wisdom.
Fireflies in December is a tight, finely crafted novel that challenges us to root out any hint of prejudice in our own hearts, whether we’re black or white, male or female, rich or poor. That’s a message that’ll stand the test of time.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.