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Review: Unique narrator propels ‘What the Fireflies Knew’

January 31, 2022 GMT
This cover image released by Tiny Reparations Books shows "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris. (Tiny Reparations Books via AP)
This cover image released by Tiny Reparations Books shows "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris. (Tiny Reparations Books via AP)
This cover image released by Tiny Reparations Books shows "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris. (Tiny Reparations Books via AP)
This cover image released by Tiny Reparations Books shows "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris. (Tiny Reparations Books via AP)
This cover image released by Tiny Reparations Books shows "What the Fireflies Knew" by Kai Harris. (Tiny Reparations Books via AP)

“What the Fireflies Knew” by Kai Harris (Tiny Reparations Books)

One of the joys of reviewing books is reading things you otherwise never would. So let me disclose up front that I chose this book because the title sounded cool. I didn’t know what it was about, didn’t know it was a debut novel from a creative writing professor, and certainly didn’t know it was a poignant story told in the voice of a pre-teen Black girl from Detroit.

Kenyatta Bernice, KB for short, is the unique narrator, and for readers like me (full disclosure, again: I’m a 50-year-old white male) her voice takes a little getting used to. “I was s’posed to be sleep, but I couldn’t sleep, so I crept down the creaky stairs looking for Daddy... I ain’t scream at first, when I found him there, cold,” begins the story in January 1995. Fast forward five months and KB and her sister, Nia, are relocating to Lansing, Michigan, to live with their grandfather for the summer. They don’t know why their grieving “Momma” can’t take care of them anymore and the rest of the novel is basically KB piecing together what happened and then trying to piece her family back together after she learns their flaws and secrets.

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“This book was born from a desire to show Black girlhood at it best, at its worst, at its most dull and most exciting,” writes Harris in the acknowledgements, which I think may provide readers some valuable context if read first rather than at the end. There’s no need to sketch the plot any further, just to say that Harris has indeed captured what I think is a believable adolescent girl’s voice. Here is KB watching her “Granddaddy” after Bible study with a friend: “I watch Granddaddy’s face, his hands, his feet. I watch the way he smooths the small pillow on the wicker chair where Charlie sat... When I watch people, I’m looking at more than what they do. I look at how they do it, then try to figure out why.”

It’s all that figuring that makes the book worth reading. It’s not an easy read, by any means — there’s racism, sexual assault, drug use — but it feels authentic, and does what good fiction does: take readers on a journey they otherwise wouldn’t travel.