the story behind the book | kate tuttle

A plague of insects in town riven by class, race

david wilson for the boston globe

Julia Fierro’s second novel, “The Gypsy Moth Summer,” is set in Avalon, a fictional islet off the coast of Long Island, over the summer of 1992. Change is in the air: The Cold War is winding down, and Bill Clinton is poised to enter the White House. But the people of Avalon are facing their own personal upheavals, some of them painful.

Tangles of family drama, racial tension, and young love share space with an environmental phenomenon: In the novel, Avalon is overrun with gypsy moths, an invasive species introduced by a French scientist in the late 19th century. Fierro introduced the insect to her book “for the atmosphere,” she said. “I really wanted to create this claustrophobic, somewhat surreal, fairy-tale plague.”

Although moth invasions are real, Fierro had to invent a place for her diverse cast of characters to coexist. Her own childhood in Huntington, Long Island, was marked by both racial and class segregation. “We were living in this beautiful area among these wealthy people,” she said. The daughter of an Italian immigrant, Fierro knew she was an outsider. “I really worked hard to blend in,” she said. “I quickly figured out how I was supposed to dress, how I was supposed to talk. It was fascinating to me — maybe I was a budding writer even though I wasn’t yet writing — but seeing how being born into an understanding of wealth informed these people.”


Her parents, she added, were initially baffled by her choice to become a writer. “They wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor,” she said. But now they’re proud, Fierro said, and she’s thankful “to have parents who taught me to be grateful for what I have. I’m just in shock all the time about where I am and who I’m allowed to be. Their stories give me perspective in a way that’s more valuable than anything.”

Fierro will read 7 p.m. Monday at Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Rd., Newton Centre.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at