Friday, June 20, 2014

FIREFLIES by Bree Wolf: a Review by J. Lee Graham

Bree Wolf’s Fireflies, her first it seems in the Middle Grade Genre, is an oddly wonderful fusion of The Well-Wishers by Edward Eager and the Southern Gothic stories of Truman Capote. Ms. Wolf has created a delightful, sweet twelve-year-old boy named Gabriel, who lives in New York City and inside his computer in a fantasy world adventure game where characters use stereotypical face-cringing Tolkien speak. I love how Ms. Wolf creates one of those god-awful fantasy games complete with cheesy dialogue and everyone eating stew.

Her hero Gabriel laps it up. It’s all he has. His parents are a dysfunctional mess (taking no responsibility for Gabriel’s spiral into this addiction in the first place) and Gabriel tends to respond to their screaming and their horrible behavior by pressing his nails into his palms in a type of pre-adolescent PTSD which breaks your heart. To add to this, no one at school even knows or cares who he is. When Ms. Wolf writes simply, as she does describing a ridiculous game of hangman in the classroom, you want to reach out through the pages and take Gabriel on a long walk.

As the class kept guessing, Gabriel crouched down in his chair, letting his hazelnut hair fall in his face. He had figured out the answer long before the hangman eventually died on the noose, but he didn’t raise his hand. He never did. They would all look at him if he did. The mere thought made his hands tremble.

His parents force him to go to North Carolina (on a 10-hour train ride? I didn’t understand that one as they live in a two- story apartment in Manhattan and could afford plane fare.), but it is here that the novel kicks in. There is a lot of plot: a sick girl, a scavenger hunt and on and on, and while at times, it may feel like too many things happen in all of one summer, it was the characters themselves that kept me reading Fireflies. This was the glue Ms. Wolf uses to create some wonderful friends for Gabriel to slowly commune with. Their dialogue was fun and natural and even when one of them calls another a “drama queen” (do kids even say this, and do they know the actual history of the expression?) it didn’t matter. Relationships in a MG novel have to work for me regardless of the plot, and there are moments of real beauty when Ms. Wolf allows her characters to breathe and find each other and above all, commit to each other.

Many of my favorite scenes centered around the local swimming hole, and I had to marvel at the (subconscious?) themes Ms. Wolf utilizes. {In two of my own time travel MG novels, a lake is featured prominently, not simply for plot points, but as a strong metaphor for transformation.} It is an ancient metaphor, the ‘baptism’ if you will of a character coming to terms with a newer part of him/herself. In Fireflies, each character has an interaction with the water that subtly exposes his or her hidden fears and gifts.

Another powerful symbol is the use of scissors by a female character when interacting with Gabriel. What she creates with the scissors seemed to be pushing the believability envelope, but their conversation, her intention and the ritual and the symbolic meaning behind it all was quite moving.

The use of technology in MG is so difficult sometimes and often I find myself scratching my head wondering how to incorporate it into fiction without it erasing all the drama and tension. In this novel, the techno traps did confuse me. Gabriel has a cell phone (we learn much later in the story), but there’s no mention that he either calls or doesn’t call his parents and vice versa. The characters can take pictures and send them to each other on their phones, so that means emails and internet access, yet Gabriel doesn’t use the phone to play his fantasy game? He instead, goes into a library and simply logs on to his game. There is no mention that he has a library card that would allow him to do this.

Some continuity issues with months and school schedules (the North vs the South) also pop up, but these are all trivial details. Perhaps just a good copyeditor to tighten up the inconsistencies is all that’s required.

Gabriel comes through in the end, and I hope there perhaps is a sequel in the works. Ms. Wolf is getting her feet wet and one can feel her itching to write more. Again, Ms. Wolf’s sympathetic and sensitive writings around relationship, friendship, the power of living in the present, and living life to the fullest are tremendous enough reasons to read this charming book.