This long-awaited novel by Sheri Reynolds, whose THE RAPTURE OF CANAAN was an Oprah pick a number of years ago, opens with a memory of abandonment. Tessa Lee is eight years old when her mother, Sheila Birch, leaves Tessa Lee and four-year-old Travis in a campground in order to follow her boyfriend, taking with her everything except the tent the children are sleeping in and a cloak that Tessa Lee calls the Firefly Cloak. It becomes the only reminder she has of her mother and she wears it symbolically, thinking that one day she will be returning it to Sheila when she comes back for them. What saves the two children is the phone number that Sheila writes on the skin of Travis's back, that of their grandmother Lil. Tessa Lee and Travis are raised by their grandparents, thinking that their mother resides on the East Coast with her boyfriend.
Seven years later, Tessa Lee is living with her grandmother in a trailer park. Her grandfather had passed away a few years previously, and in the narrative Tessa Lee alludes to Travis, whom the reader will discover has just passed away. Tessa Lee learns that her mother has been living only two hours away all this time, working at an amusement park. She makes the journey alone to find Sheila and tell her the bad news about Travis. Lil waits at home, anxious and worried sick, thinking that Tessa Lee has run away. When she finally is face to face with her mother, a woman who is skin and bones and looks tinier than Tessa Lee remembers, Sheila denies having children and reacts badly to Tessa Lee. It's this near-encounter with Sheila that changes the course of both their lives.
The chance meeting sets Sheila off in a panic. She runs away from a job that had brought her some stability to a life that had been filled with drugs and alcohol, a life that would have embarrassed her mother Lil, a God-fearing Christian who disapproved of Sheila's black boyfriend all those years ago. Sheila had run away because she refused to cave in to her mother's discipline, just as she's running away now from her past. Sheila's new series of adventures sound almost drug-induced, and with her luck she ends up with a man who seems to have a few screws loose. She's ill, however, and knows she needs his help. So she takes a chance with him, hoping he'll care for her.
Tessa Lee befriends a boy with green hair who works at the amusement park and takes Tessa Lee under his wing. It is because of "Rash" that Tessa Lee returns home, but she is still dealing with her demons, wanting to lash out at her grandmother. Lil feels responsible for chasing Sheila away all those years ago and is trying her best to make amends by not repeating the same mistakes with Tessa Lee.
The gaps between the present and the past are filled in with flashbacks. The reader will piece together why Sheila left her children, how she spent the next seven years, and what ended Travis's young life. The story moves at a moderate pace, but it's the little details of Sheila's life, Tessa Lee's true feelings for her wayward mother, and the mystery of Travis's death that make this book a fast read. One will fall in love with all the characters, and while there is a sort of resolution at the end of the story, the reader may deem that the novel ends too soon. Yet, it is a satisfactory conclusion for the three main protagonists. Sheila is the one character whose fate will be up in the air, and the reader will want to know if she turns her life around or continues to sink into that black hole.
THE FIREFLY CLOAK is just as good as THE RAPTURE OF CANAAN. While quite different, both are told amidst a set of Christian values, with at least one person fighting against those values and walking a very different road in life. Lil's southern Christian values are what causes Sheila to run away as a teenager, but one gets the impression that Lil is now trying to repress those values, praying that she will not lose her granddaughter. FIREFLY CLOAK is a wonderful coming-of-age story told in delicate prose that seems to be the signature of author Sheri Reynolds.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 21, 2011