Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Life of a Firefly
by Sandra Brown Lindstedt
Paperback, 156 pages
Life of a Firefly is an entertaining, inspiring story of an African-American girl growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, drawn from author Sandra Brown Lindstedt’s memoir, “I am Fireflies Ascending,” The chapters, each of which is a stand-alone story, are arranged chronologically, covering Sandy Forte’s childhood from ages three to eleven. Chapters are introduced with poems by the author. “Redemption” begins:
Everywhere I land
on shore or on the sand,
I light up,
breaking curses that remain,
generations of invisible chains.
I light up!
At the start of “Tale of Two Snakes”, the opening lines are:
iff’n too much sweets gon’ make me ill
din feed me chocolate against my will
and take me down to the candy sto’
by me Baby Ruths, Mint Juleps and mo’
“Forte”, Sandy’s last name, means “strong” . The sources of her strength are her grandmother and her inner firefly. When Sandy was three and her sister, Glory, five, their mother brought them from Chicago, Illinois to Hook, Texas to stay with Grandma Minnie Mae Forte. Their fathers are out of the picture. The little girls miss their mother at first but soon make Grandma their mother-figure. Though she’s poor, she’s resourceful, salvaging cloth to make each girl a rag doll. She entertains them with the tale of her African American cowboy father and her Blackfoot Indian mother.
As the novel opens, the girls are chasing fireflies. Glory dares Sandy to eat one, and Sandy does, in exchange for the silver crayon in the new box. While Glory is quiet and compliant, Sandy is daring and, as Grandma says, “headstrong.”
When the girls are seven and nine their mother wants them back with her in Chicago. Sandy, who hardly remembers Mama Janetta Mae, wants to stay with Grandma. Her grandmother tells her Sandy that the firefly inside her will wake up in her heart. Sandy then feels “warm, happy and safe, as if nothing in the world could ever harm [her].”
The firefly recurs in each chapter, signifying inner light, faith, and the spirit of God, as in the song, “This little light of mine.” Sandy calls upon that light in tough situations, such as their two-day train trip to Chicago. On this journey Sandy almost loses her rag doll, Miss Rebekah, down the scary train toilet. The doll’s dress catches on a metal bolt which prevents her from plummeting onto the tracks below. Calling on her inner strength, Sandy reaches down for her, and at that moment, the girls’ fifteen year old Uncle Henry, who is accompanying them, bursts into the “Ladies” like a guardian angel. and pulls both the girl and the doll to safety. From then on, neither girl will use the “terrible hole with the moving tracks beneath” and arrive in Chicago “wet with pee.” Later Uncle Henry says he will never travel with them again.
To the girls’ disappointment, their mother’s apartment has only one bedroom and a tiny kitchen. The tall buildings and city noise take getting used to. Worse, Sandy gets off on the wrong foot with her mother by asking about her father. On their first day at a run-down, inner-city school, Glory forgets to wait for Sandy after class. Alone on the steps, Sandy is afraid until she remembers Grandma singing, “Jesus loves the little children.” Summoning up her courage, she finds her own way home.
When laid off from her factory job, Mama brings the girls back to Grandma and another interlude of peace and security before she summons them to Chicago again. Grandma is the heart and soul of the novel. Other memorable characters appear too, such as Peggy, a privileged girl who pretends to be Sandy’s friend and draws her into scary situations. A far better friend is Leroy, a poor boy who comes to Sandy’s rescue when she’s afraid of “The Swamp Thing”, who, according to Peggy, lives under the bridge.
Sandy first experiences racism when Grandma takes the girls to buy new outfits and the clerk informs her that “coloureds” aren’t allowed to try on the clothes. At a gathering in a neighbour’s house to watch Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on TV, she learns about segregation, civil rights and sit-ins. Now she understands why so many African Americans, including her mother. Still, she prefers to live in Texas with her grandmother.
After two years of non-communication, Mama arrives, pregnant, to take the girls back to Chicago. Sandy runs away to her Uncle Zippy and Aunt Mouse, who convince her that the “firefly in her belly” is faith, and that, with faith, “ain’t nothing you can’t face.” She decides that, if she has to live by certain rules, she won’t let them break her, but will bend instead.
In Chicago, the family struggles on welfare. Sandy dreads school, not only because she’s so shabby but also because her teacher punishes children by locking them in the classroom closet. On class photo day, ashamed of her clothes, Sandy tries to keep her coat on, and has a tussle with the teacher. The outcome is not ideal, but at least no child will be locked in the closet again.
Sandy changes schools whenever her mother moves. At one school, going on the class trip seems out of reach, as she hasn’t enough money for the fee, new shoes and lunch. She prays about it and does what she can to raise money, only to have her hopes dashed. At the last minute, a stroke of luck and the kindness of strangers enable her to go. At another school she meets “Gorilla Girl”, who steals other kids’ lunches. Sandy, who depends on the free lunch the state provides, finds a clever though dangerous way to end the bullying. The author presents such incidents humorously, with positive outcomes that underline the need to heed one’s “inner firefly.”
When Sandy is eleven, the family, which now includes Mama’s boyfriend and his two children, go on a holiday to Hook. “Six kids and two unstable adults” land in Grandma’s three room house without warning. Even so, she rises to the occasion and is accommodating. When Sandy confides that she hates Chicago, Grandma shares some information about Mama which makes Sandy understand her better. Later, Sandy has brush with death and experiences an epiphany. Then she adopts Grandma’s ways and gives a younger child a message of hope.
A few promising characters go undeveloped. Aunt Sarah, a college student who takes an interest in the girls when she’s home on break, is obviously an achiever, but she disappears from the story. Uncle Henry also disappears into the military, and other interesting people appear once and never again. Glory, Sandy’s sister, seems troubled and subdued, but we don’t find out exactly what’s wrong or how things go for her.
In her promotional material the author says, “The only success stories I saw growing up in Chicago were the pimps and the girls who worked for them. They had the nice cars.” The author does not mention such things in the novel, no doubt thinking them inappropriate. Many of the “tween” and and young adult novels that I review, however, contain sophisticated subject matter and gritty realism. Kid Sterling, by Christine Welldon, for instance, set in early 20th century New Orleans, involves the drug trade. Firebird, by Glen Huser, about the internment of “enemy aliens” during World War I, involves adultery, pregnancy and death. Both novels show man’s inhumanity to man, yet manage to end on a hopeful note. While Life of a Firefly is fine as it is, I hope that Ms. Brown Lindstedt will continue writing about Sandy in a novel for teens.
Life of a Firefly is funny, uplifting, and, according to the author, ninety-eight per cent true. A graduate in English and Theatre from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Ms Brown Lindstedt lives with her husband, Christer Lindstedt, in Goteburg Sweden where she is drama director for Smyrna International Church. Life of a Firefly is a book that parents and librarians should put in the hands of young readers.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta is the author of three young adult novels, The Secret of White Birch Road; The Songcatcher and Me; and Grace and the Secret Vault (all available from Baico Publishing, email@example.com) She reviews books for CM Magazine: Canadian Materials.