Author: Jennifer Erin Valent
Review by Grace Olson
Have you ever picked up a book, read the first three pages, and then couldn’t put it down? From that point on, your life is on hold. Sleep is a thing of the past. Cleaning? Well, let’s just say ‘I’ll meet you for coffee at your house, or better yet, can we make it next week?’ Okay, so maybe it’s not that drastic, but I think I’ve made my point clear. Those of you who have been there know what I mean. Fireflies in December, author Jennifer Erin Valent’s debut novel, was that way for me. I was whisked away on an adventure to 1932 Calloway County, Virginia, as 2012 was quickly forgotten.
Thirteen-year-old Jessilyn Lassiter has never had much luck with summers, and this hot, muggy summer in the 1930s-South is going to be no different. When Jessie’s best friend, Gemma Teague, a young African-American girl, loses her parents in a tragic fire, Jessie’s family takes her into their home. But prejudice and racism run deep in Calloway County, and the local Ku Klux Klan doesn’t like this mingling of races. They take it upon themselves to threaten the Lassiter family in order to teach them a lesson. The Lassiters stand firm in what they know is right, even as the Klan makes increasingly dangerous threats. As Jessie straddles the proverbial fence, suspended between girlhood and adolescence, she must learn to deal with first crushes. In addition, she is forced to face the poisonous hatred of her community head-on as she learns what it means to be a light in a dark world.
“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 in this world. Like fireflies in December.” ~ Fireflies in December.
Valent transports readers back to a volatile era of our country’s history. Even though it is more than fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the South is still steeped in racial prejudices. The characters of the novel are well-crafted, and I quickly grew attached to them, despite the fact that the story was written in first-person. Valent describes the setting beautifully, and I could almost feel the oppressive summer heat, despite the fact that outside my window there was snow on the ground.
Exploring the world of the South in the 30s was at times painful and frightening as the prejudices of people toward those of another skin color played out. I felt Jessie’s pain as she struggled through this difficult time in her life. I also felt the love the Lassiter family shared with each other and others as they endured these trials together.
The lessons in this book are not just for Jessie and the people of Calloway County. As Jessie’s father says, “…ain’t no man can’t get someplace he never thought he’d get to. You let enough bad thoughts into your head, you can end up doin’ all sorts of things you never thought possible…That’s why we all need to know Jesus in our hearts. Ain’t no one else who can keep watch over our hearts like He can. Ain’t no one else who can take the bad out and replace it with good.” ~ Fireflies in December. This lesson is as true now as it was eighty years ago.
This brings me to the spiritual element of the book. The Christian message of Fireflies in December is clear, but it avoids being either heavy-handed or preachy. While Jessie believes in God, she is not a Christian like her parents, but I have a sneaking suspicion that her spiritual journey has only begun.
About the Author
Valent resides in Virginia, where she works as a nanny. Fireflies in December won the 2007 Operation First Novel contest put on by the Christian Writers Guild, and the quality and superb writing of the novel reflects this achievement. This book also won the 2010 Christy Award. The next two books in the Calloway Summers series, Cottonwood Whispers and Catching Moondrops, are also available for purchase.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a good historical-fiction read. The characters are very well developed, and the plot keeps you turning pages, but be forewarned: Fireflies in December has high potential to suck you into the story. So get out there! Clear your schedule (you’ll be glad I told you to do that), and check out, download, or purchase a paper copy of Fireflies in December! I hope you enjoy this novel as much as I did.