The Possibility of Fireflies by Dominique Paul has much in common with Paul Zindel’s play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Both feature two sisters who are being raised by a mother who is not really up to the job. The older sister in each is a troubled figure, clearly a character who will not do well in life. The younger sister, in contrast, is a bright, inquisitive, thoughtful girl who stands a fairly good chance of doing well in spite of her difficult family life.
But times have certainly changed since Mr. Zindel wrote Gamma Rays which was a fairly hard hitting story for its day. The girls in The Possibility of Fireflies face life with one of the worst mothers I’ve ever encountered in fiction. While the mother Gamma Rays cannot adequately provide for the financial and emotional needs of either her disabled older daughter or her gifted younger one, she does love them both. If you remember the play you’re probably thinking about what happens to the rabbit right now and asking how could I say that she loves her girls after that scene. I offer how hard she works to get by as evidence of her love. She works multiple jobs, takes in elderly borders, does all she can to scrounge up enough money to get by. And, in the end, she stays with her elder daughter and cares for her knowing full well that the girl will never be able to do so for herself.
The mother in The Possibility of Fireflies may have a redeeming feature somewhere but I couldn’t find it. She leaves the girls alone while she goes out to bars all night long and then gets physically violent with them if they come home late. She won’t give them a key to their own house which leaves them locked out in the cold night waiting for a chance to sneak in when she returns. She is emotionally and verbally abusive towards them. The girls are left to face the world without any help or guidance. The older one ends up in trouble with the law while the younger ends up desperately lonely. The only decent thing the mother does is actually a questionable act; she provides an alibi for her older daughter who has been accused of setting fire to the barn where local teenagers hang out to smoke and do various drugs. She then uses this alibi to blackmail her elder daughter into doing her favors.
At the end of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds the younger daughter reads from her science fair presentation. She talks about how some of the marigold seeds she planted were able to survive exposure to radiation and grow into flowers, while others, ones that faced too much radiation, withered and died or did not sprout at all. In the almost 40 years since Gamma Rays was first published, maybe things have gotten a lot worse, or maybe Young Adult literature has come to the point where bad situations can be portrayed as truly terrible as they really are. There is a ray of hope at the end of The Possibility of Fireflies, but I wasn’t quite able to buy it. I have had students, girls, whose mother’s stayed out in bars until very late at night. There is not much hope there.
The Possibility of Fireflies was the most recent choice of one of the book clubs in my 7th grade class. A group of five girls picked it; I told them they could read it if they could all get a copy since it’s not one I have a class set of. Luckily, none of their parents read it, or didn’t object to it if they did. It’s too racy for a class book in the 7th grade which I now know. Of the five, four liked it enough to want to see the movie when it comes out. They are convinced that there really are people like the mother out there in the world and that the issues the girls face are very real. They also buy the ending and the hope it offers, which I was glad to hear.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in February of 2009. In the years since I have completely forgotten the book. Moving my old posts over to this new site has given me an excuse to reread my old posts, which I’ve enjoyed doing. It’s interesting to see what I remember and what I don’t. A little embarrassing, too. Did anyone see the movie? I don’t remember if the girls who read the book liked the movie or not.