Tom is in seventh grade of Catholic School in Connecticut. He's a little overweight and he doesn't talk much in class. His best friend is Jeff, whose parents got divorced a couple of years ago. Jeff has to go to New York City now to stay with his father and his father's girlfriend in a tiny apartment. Jeff's mother is a nurse who works long hours. His parents fight over money, and his father says that Jeff would be better off in a public school. Jeff is bitter and often complains about his parents. Tom feels bad for him, but does not know what to say.
One day a new girl arrives in class. Jessica has burns all over her body, and she is undergoing long term medical treatment to improve her health and to make her look more normal. The children find it difficult to look at Jessica, let along talk to her. No one says what caused her disfigurement, so they start inventing stories. One day at morning prayers, when everyone is meant to hold the hand of the person next to them, Jeff refuses to hold Jessica's hand, but Tom does. When Tom is alone with Jeff, Jeff makes mean comments about Jessica and says he would prefer to be dead than live looking like her. Tom is really uncomfortable with Jeff's words, but he does not want to take a stand to defend her.
Jessica is staying at a house close to Tom's, and when Jessica leaves school early leaving her belongings, a teacher asks Tom to take the homework to her. So he visits Jessica's home, and ends up talking not just to her but also her father. He learns about the accident that caused Jessica's burns, and starts to understand her a little more. This makes it more difficult for him to listen to Jeff go on about how gross she looks and how difficult it is for him to have to look at her. Tom's relationship with Jeff deteriorates, although they never completely stop being friends.
When after a couple of weeks, Jessica says that her is leaving town because the medical treatment they came for is not working, Tom finds all his feelings rising to the surface. He wishes he had done more to be friendly to her and he feels ashamed for not helping her more. Yet, as she points out, he talked to her more than anyone else in their class. Although he does not quite understand it, it seems clear that Jessica's very visible damage has shaken Tom, making him understand how fragile life is and how easy it is to miss opportunities to help others, and thus help himself. Jessica only stays at the school for a couple of weeks, but his encounter with her really makes a difference to him.
Firegirl is a compelling story of a boy's emotional and moral development. We see how he starts to move on from connecting to others in unrealistic fantasies of him having superhero abilities to a better appreciation of how to relate to his peers. The many subtle details make the story believable. The class teacher is also very uncomfortable in talking to the children about Jessica, but she is very enthusiastic about the project of an election of a class president. Tom does not make a total transformation from a shy boy to an outgoing do-gooder, but instead grows a little bit in a positive way. The popular girl Courtney notices Tom for the first time because of his kindness to Jessica, but she still does not want to be his girlfriend. Tom starts to understand that Jeff is a bit of a jerk, but he still finds him funny. All of this makes Firegirl a surprisingly powerful novel for young people.
The reading of the unabridged audiobook by Sean Kenin is done well. Kenin manages to convey Tom's enthusiasm for bright red Cobra cars, and is able to express Tom's superhero fantasies without making them sound silly. He also brings out the cruelty of the children's treatment of people different from themselves without making the reader hate all the characters. Lasting less than three hours, the audiobook is a strong performance.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.