Middle grade fiction readers will find By the Light of the Fireflies a fine historical novel based on the life of Colonial girl Sybil Ludington, following Sybil and her family's struggle during the Revolutionary War.
The story opens with the Loyalists to the British Crown coming for her father. They are accusing him of being a traitor to England.
Sybil believes in her father, and in the magic light of fireflies which (legend has it) appear when you need them most. But can they help her family when war swirls around them and they all are endangered?
As Sybil steps into a role she'd never envisioned, young readers receive an action-packed story that captures the environment and atmosphere of the times: "I used my musket to point into the dark forest, my own gaze following the long barrel. I heard Rebecca’s gasp. My gun felt heavy in my hands. I should fire it. It was what Papa told us to do. Fire it and he’d come running. He’d handle the situation, in this case: his capturers. Or worse: his assassins. I quivered. I wouldn’t fire my gun. That felt like hand-delivering a worm to a bird’s nest to be gobbled."
Forced to be assertive and proactive beyond her years and experience, Sybil becomes an inadvertent heroine as she struggles to protect everything she loves from the Loyalists and the evolving battle that engulfs her home.
Revolutionary War history and motivations on all sides come to life in the course of a survey that does an outstanding job of capturing the political and social sentiments of the times.
Jenni L. Walsh is especially adept at capturing the Sybil's first-person observations and emotions: "I pushed us north, toward the hamlet of Stormville. That’d be the point where I turned us south again. I yearned for Stormville. I wanted nothing more than to see that strip of homes. My hands were red. They burned from the cold, from where I gripped the reins and my stick. My jawline hurt, where my teeth had clenched for so long. My legs and back and torso ached from keeping beat with Star. My stomach felt hollow and grumbled for food. My eyeballs even felt as if they’d been rattled to the point of pain."
These drive a story line that personalizes the history in a manner that makes it understandable, realistic, and quite accessible.
Middle grade readers who normally eschew fact-laden historical fiction will find the emotional driving force particularly strong in By the Light of the Fireflies. This approach strengthens the compelling story of a young girl's trials, which forces her into the unexpected role of becoming a female war hero in times where girls and women normally are staid.
A concluding note from the author reinforces the real historical events that receive such evocative, personalized attention in the plot.
--Midwest Book Review
Reviewed June 2021
It's very highly recommended reading.
A Betting Woman tells of Simone Jules (aka 'Madame Mustache'), who arrives in San Francisco in 1849 after the death of her family in a fire. Broke and bereaved, Simone needs a job, fast. Fate brings her into the unusual position of being a blackjack dealer at a card table, where she makes her mark as an exotic French-speaking woman who adds pizzazz to the process.
Jenni L. Walsh presents this vivid story in the first person. This approach brings the milieu of early San Francisco to life as Simone captures the City's sights, sounds, and women's lives.
But the story doesn't end there, because romance and murder lead Simone to a new town, a new identity as gambling hall matron Eleanor Dumont, and yet another revised life changed by death.
With the Gold Rush serving as the backdrop for her achievements and confrontations, A Betting Woman provides historical novel readers with a special blend of real history and fictional drama that will attract not just history buffs, but women who enjoy strong female characters determined to survive.
Walsh's vivid imagery and language is part of what drives this moving story, from its first paragraphs: "I had arrived; ready to start anew, with nothing but two trunks, a mouth of deceptions, and my broken memories. Opportunity whistled through San Francisco, where its gold was discovered accidentally, unexpectedly. One could’ve said the same about my coming here. Unexpected."
Walsh carries this spunky character's feel throughout life's slings and arrows and the buffeting, changing circumstance that drives her not outward, but upward. The addition of romance and its delicate dance is also very nicely described and compellingly written: "The night continued. David and I danced around each other in words, expressions, and stolen glances. To say his presence shook me and left me off kilter would be an understatement. I didn’t want to let on that I knew him beyond an old acquaintance, and he seemed to understand me and give me that courtesy. He didn’t refer to me as Simone, nor as Eleanor. Only Madame. His eyes flickered to my ringless finger now and again, perhaps wondering when and why I exchanged the title of mademoiselle, as I was so often called back home. Had I married? Or did I simply prefer the more respected title? I saw the questions in his head."
A Betting Woman is an engrossing story, very well done and hard to put down. Hopefully, it will reach beyond historical fiction audiences and into enthusiasts of women's literature who look for powerful voices, experiences, descriptions, and growth in their novels.
It's very highly recommended reading.
Reviewed January 7, 2021