Sunday, June 5, 2011

Butterfly's Child

Butterfly's Child is a first for me. It is a novel that continues an opera. The opera is Puccini's  Madama Butterfly and the novel is the What If story of her son. Most of us have absorbed the basic unhappy love story of Madama Butterfly through pop culture osmosis without ever having seen any production. In the early 20th century a beautiful Geisha named enters a marriage contract with an American navel officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. The Geisha falls deeply in love with her husband and he seems to love her as well. After he goes back to sea she bares him a child. Three years later Pinkerton returns to his faithful, longing wife with his new, American wife, Kate. Pinkerton is too cowardly to confront his Japanese wife and instead leaves his American bride to do that. Not willing to live a life disgraced by her husband's betrayal, the Geisha sends her son into the garden and kills herself.
Author Angela Davis-Gardner (whose book Plum Wine I recently read and enjoyed very much) begins her novel with three year old Benji leaving his home in Nagasaki to live on the family farm in Illinois with his father Frank and stepmother Kate. The plan is to tell the neighbors that blond haired, Asian featured Benji is a newly adopted orphan in need of conversion to Christianity. You don't need to have a Magic 8 Ball to know that this blended family is in for a world of trouble.
Benji does what is expected of him around the farm and at school but is ever the outsider. His parentage is a taboo subject at home but a favorite gossip topic in the community. He grows up dutiful and eager to please but with a burning desire to know more about his birthplace and real family. Daddy Frank is no farmer but he does get very good at drinking and remorse. Stepmother Kate has trouble loving her husband's love child and reconciling that resentment with her faith. When the truth about Benji's background comes out (Come on! That cannot be a spoiler.) his fragile family cannot take the strain. That and the reaction of the neighbors send him racing back to Japan in search of the truth about his Mother.
Davis-Gardner moves Butterfly's Child confidently between the complex culture of Japan and the seemingly open book life on an American farm with imagination and style. The characters that she has purloined and those she created slowly open up like a fan revealing their hearts and capturing our intense interest. She has replaced the opera's grandeur with an intricate layering of relationships and the lure of deeply held secrets. Davis-Gardner has taken a much treasured story and dared to enlarge it. Bravo.

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