Firefly Eyes: Voice and Subtext

Our piece for this week is Firefly Eyes by Peter Ripple, which is a short story from Periphery 50. This piece can be found in Periphery’s online archives.

One of my biggest pet peeves is authors giving their child characters adult voices. While it’s true that some children have excellent vocabularies,  an eight-year-old narrator using words like “effervescent” will immediately destroy my suspension of disbelief in a story. It’s simply too unrealistic for me to cope with—plus, as a huge fan of middle grade literature, it grates on my nerves.

Fortunately, Firefly Eyes presents us with a young narrator who has a thoroughly childlike voice. This short story follows Liam, a boy who is “younger than most princesses,” as he deals with his mother’s drug addiction, his father’s violent tendencies, and his father’s death—all within a few brief hours. Yet even as the story forces Liam to confront “adult” problems, it ensures that he maintains a childlike voice. For example, when Liam’s father curses at his mother, Liam mis-perceives the word as “forking.” Additionally, whereas a narrator with an adult voice might use various words to describe their emotions in a similar scenario, Liam repeatedly uses the words “angry,” “sad,” and “scared.” This simplistic description of emotions solidifies the idea that Liam is a young child—even though the story itself was written by an adult.

In addition to making the story more immersive, this deliberate use of a childlike voice offers plenty of opportunities for subtext, which adds intrigue and suspense to the story. Consider, for example, the following passage:

“’Now write the letters I tell you, just like how we…used to,’ she said. She started to breathe real fast and it sounded like a fan that blew air that was real cold. She kept looking at me and then at the door and then at me again.

‘Ok,’ I said and then I took the cap off the pen and I kneeled on the ground so I could use the table by her bed.

‘P, for puppy. A, for apple. I…errr…for igloo. N, for Nintendo. T, for tail. Another T…errr…H, for hamburger. I, for igloo. Two Ns, for Nintendo. E, for elephant. R, for red,” she said to me.

I wrote down the letters as good as I ever have and I held them up to Mom and I said, ‘look how good they are!’

She said, ‘good. That’s good,’ and then she breathed fast again.  

‘Now you go to the shed and bring this bookmark with you. You find the can that has this on it, ok?’ she said.”

Because Liam cannot spell, he has no idea that his mother is asking him to bring her paint thinner (presumably to drink). But as readers, we know exactly what is going on, and must therefore watch in horror as the oblivious Liam brings his mother poison, knowing that nothing we say or do can change the characters’ actions. Thus, through the use of a childish voice and perspective, Firefly Eyes draws us in and challenges us to keep reading.

All too often, I’ve heard people dismiss children’s stories, claiming that they’re irrelevant to “great modern literature.” However, as Firefly Eyes demonstrates, a well-executed childlike voice can add a lot to even an “adult” story. So, if you’ve got a young character who you’ve been keeping on your story’s sidelines, maybe it’s time to let their perspective shine.

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