Kai Harris’ debut novel is a stirring story of a transformative summer for a Black girl growing up in 1990s Michigan.
What the Fireflies Knew drops us directly into the mind of 10-year-old Kenyatta, known as KB, who has discovered her father’s dead body in the garage of their home on a “dead-end street” in Detroit. Soon after, KB’s mother leaves her and her older sister, Nia, at their grandfather’s house on a “green and noiseless” street in Lansing, Michigan. Their mother offers no explanation of where she is going or when she will be back.
KB tries hard to relate to Nia and understand why she is so angry and distant. KB also attempts to parse her family’s secrets—where her mother is and why she left, why people whisper about her daddy, and why her grandfather and mother don’t get along. Amid these questions, KB shares moments of tenderness and closeness with her stoic grandfather, who does his best to warn KB about predatory boys and the capriciousness of the white kids who live across the street.
KB is at once intuitive and naive, vulnerable and strong. Her voice captures the wonder of youth and the heartache of growing up. As the summer progresses, her presence glows and grows, like the fireflies she catches with her grandfather, like her understanding of the world around her.
Harris, a Michigan native who currently teaches creative writing at Santa Clara University in California, depicts the events of KB’s summer in an inspiring manner, ruminating on the nuances of racism, relationships and sexual development with quiet, mesmerizing restraint. Throughout these complicated and emotionally charged issues, What the Fireflies Knew celebrates the fortitude of its young protagonist. This elegant and eloquent novel is perfect for readers who loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye/i<.