For the last 12 years, I’ve belonged to a writer’s group that meets every Thursday afternoon for two hours. We read our works-in-progress, giving support and constructive criticism to each other; we spend years reading and listening to different drafts of our books, so it’s an important event, something to celebrate, when a book by one of our members comes out in print.
Butterfly’s Child by my friend and classmate Angela Davis-Gardner was first published in hard cover last year; today is the release date for the paperback edition. Random House, her publisher, has organized what they call a “blog tour” — a number of reviews by influential bloggers coordinated with the appearance of the novel in bookstores. I’m not one of those “influential bloggers,” but I’m showing my support by joining the blog tour and letting you know about this wonderful book.
On my very first day as a member of this writer’s group, Angela was the reader: she had begun a revision of her last novel, Plum Wine, and went back to Page One, Chapter One. I subsequently had the privilege of listening to Angela read every word of Butterfly’s Child, from early conception through various drafts. I suppose I can’t be entirely objective, since we all invest so much in one another’s books that they come to feel like our own; but despite a certain bias, I can state with confidence that this truly is “a spectacular novel,” in the words of Pulitizer Prize winner Jennifer Egan.
While Butterfly’s Child is, in a limited sense, a sequel to Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, the novel is so much more than a mere continuation of the narrative: it’s a revisiting and revision of the original story, correcting for Puccini’s misconceptions about Japan and Geisha culture. It’s a study of rural life and racial prejudice in early 20th century America. A meditation upon the importance of kin in the formation of our identity. A heroic quest, with the protagonist traveling cross-country to earthquake-ravaged San Francisco, then across the ocean to Nagasaki where he was born, in search of his lost relatives. It’s a love story as well as a sort of mystery, with a satisfying twist at the end. Angela’s great gift is her ability to write literary fiction that combines limpid prose with an absorbing plot, accessible on many different levels.
The book begins with a brief synopsis of Puccini’a opera; readers need no prior acquaintance with Madame Butterfly to follow the story. In brief: Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki where he formerly lived with his Japanese Geisha-Wife Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). Since his departure several years before, Butterfly has born a son; but Pinkerton has renounced this liaison and returns now with his “real” wife, an American woman named Kate. Upon learning the truth, Butterfly kills herself. Pinkerton and wife Kate take the child (Benji) back with them to a town called Plum River in rural Illinois; they tell friends and relatives that Benji was an orphan whom they rescued.
Despite their good intentions, Pinkerton and Kate are unable to provide Benji with the emotional family life he so desperately needs following the loss of his beloved mother. Pinkerton finds himself preoccupied with memories of his passionate liaison with Butterfly; Kate feels increasingly jealous and can’t bring herself to love the child of her husband’s illicit union. The children at the school Benji attends have never seen a Japanese person before; even though he has inherited Pinkerton’s blond hair and blue eyes, his Asiatic features provoke jeers and taunts. Benji is miserable.
One of his only true allies is the veterinarian Keast, who serves as a sort of surrogate father for much of the early novel. Although Benji’s ostensible quest — when he finally leaves Plum River as a teenager and begins the long journey back to Nagasaki — is for his remaining kin, Butterfly’s family, on another level, he seeks the good father and a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man. Pinkerton is remote and sometimes abusive, a lackadaisical farmer who ultimately fails; the rascal Digby promises to help Benji find his away across America, only to decamp in the middle of the night and steal his horse. It is ultimately Mr. Matsumoto (a Japanese-American living in San Francisco) who introduces Benji to the “man’s world” of commerce and trade, also imparting core values concerning hard work, responsibility and courage. Toward the novel’s end, Benji has internalized all these lessons and becomes a father himself.
And then there’s that surprising twist, so oddly satisfying, that takes the story to another level entirely. But no spoilers here!
Butterfly’s Child has so much to offer, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface. If this novel sounds as if it might appeal to you, I hope you’ll click on the link below and join me in supporting Angela by purchasing her book.