new year off with a bang!
Review by Joey Madia
We live in an age of flash. An age of CGI and ultra-action in our storytelling that breeds endless comic-book films with flimsy stories and one-dimensional heroes causing brain-jarring explosions.
In many ways, publishing has followed suit, filling the stacks with dark visions of horror and title after title full of violence and sex attempting to keep afloat paper-thin story structure and one-dimensional heroes and heroines.
So it is very refreshing to read a novel like P. S. Bartlett’s Fireflies. A novel that tells, simply and elegantly, the story of a family’s love. Now, don’t get me wrong—there is violence, and sex, and there is even a supernatural series of events involving a 6-year-old boy, Ennis, and his abilities to heal through the help of what is believed to be angels.
But at the heart of this adventure, which takes place in 1881 in rural Pennsylvania, are the complex relationships of Irish immigrants Owen and Sarah Whelan and their seven children, several of whom are courting.
Bartlett’s story structure is sound and evenly paced, and she handles the varying degrees of Irish brogue in the family with dexterity. There is just enough to give an authentic flavor to the dialogue without bogging the reader down.
As in any small town, then and now, there are an abundance of secrets and a wide array of dark hearts and diseased characters. But they serve as obstacles and to raise the stakes rather than to merely shock and artificially drive the narrative. With an abundance of sub-plots, including periodic glimpses into the past lives and loves of Owen and Sarah, it is not completely clear who the central character is, although their daughter Teagan, with her aspirations to be a doctor like her father and brother and independent attitude certainly fits the bill.
I mentioned that there is a supernatural element. The biggest surprise and therefore the greatest strength of Bartlett’s novel is that I found myself fully invested in the more magical, sacred elements of the story and I believed the ending explanation without question.
Fireflies touches the heart without being saccharine or overblown in its belief in the boundless power of love. Sacrifice is a matter of family honor and community necessity. No one sets out to be a hero. The Whelans are by and large innocents, in the way the Waltons were. And speaking of classic television, for fans of Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, and Ghost Whisperer [before it went off the rails and become about other things than the unwavering love of the husband and wife despite her abilities] you can’t do any better.
More and more—whether it be my reaching my mid-40s or as an antidote for all of the flash and flimsiness of so much modern storytelling, I am compelled to tout the value of books like Bartlett’s. Although I am Italian and not Irish, the synergy of the immigrant family making the most of their chances in America by sticking together and honoring fundamental family values speaks to me. I miss my grandparents and great-grandparents. I miss the big family gatherings where food was a central element and your place in the family was earned over time in minor but meaningful ways such as getting to sit at the “big people’s” table or being dealt a hand at the penny-ante poker games later in the evening.
The Whelans spoke to me across time and nationality.
My one wish is that an editor’s eye has the opportunity to look over the manuscript to clean up some of the typos. The cover, typesetting and overall design are appealing and professional and the writing is so strong that little things like a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation tend to stick out.
If you are in the market for a simple tale well told, with well-drawn characters and a compelling story, then Fireflies will not disappoint you.