Monday, March 30, 2020

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

I want to talk to you today about a book that is at once extremely sad and incredibly lovely. The book is The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld. Ms. Denfeld is an author, journalist and licensed public defense investigator. I have previously reviewed her other two novels, The Enchanted, about death-row inmates, and The Child Finder. I won’t tell you too much about the story-line since it is a kind of mystery, and I would not want to be a spoiler.

There are two primary narrators in this novel: Naomi, an investigator who specializes in finding lost children, and Celia, a twelve year old girl who lives in a sort of community of street children. Naomi has decided she will not take another case until she finds her younger sister with whom she was abducted years before. Naomi escaped, but her sister did not. She has no picture of her sister and no name, but she is determined to find her. Naomi remembers very little of her own escape, but one lead has led her to Portland, Oregon, and it is there that she continues her search.

Celia is on the run from an abusive stepfather and a mother who is an addict. While she occasionally checks in with her mother, she is afraid to give away her location.
Celia disappeared inside herself. She was used to doing that. She could make herself vanish even as she stood there, just another street urchin with no future in sight. 
Celia who believed in nothing but herself and the butterflies, knew that the worst fears of the streets were always real. You can find that out the hard way, or you can be watchful. 
Naomi and her husband Jerome are staying with one of Naomi’s old friends while Naomi continues her search. She wakens from a dream of still being in captivity, and hearing the voice of her sister “back there. In that place.”
She breathed out in relief that the dream was over but still felt the anxious echo of the call. 
I’m getting closer, she thought. This is why she was here in the city with Jerome. After almost a year of searching for her long-lost sister, their investigation had brought them here.
Celia and her street friends Rich and Stoner sleep under an overpass at night, and offer each other friendship and what protection they can provide.

When Celia first encounters Naomi on the streets where Naomi is asking questions of street people in hopes of coming up with some leads, Celia does not trust this well dressed and seemingly assured woman, but eventually as the story unwinds she begins to trust her, and Naomi, for her part, cannot ignore this streetwise child even though she is on her own search.

Denfeld is an incredible writer, not simply sympathetic to the street people, her connection is much deeper. She could be describing herself as she describes Naomi during a period in her investigations.
Naomi was standing outside the Aspire shelter. The smeary brick, the narrow streets, the shapes huddled in the doorways—all felt familiar to her now. She has crossed the threshold. The world of the missing had become her own world. She knew the regulars, the bruised-cherry alcoholics, the families on nodding acquaintance, the street kids like Celia.
There is no condescension in Denfeld’s dealings with the homeless, no us/them dichotomy. No wonder she can create such believable characters, can give the reader views from the inside.

As in her novel The Child Finder, Denfeld is intrigued by and describes meticulously how children who are held captive and cannot escape may create a kind of escape with their minds. Celia escapes via her world of beautiful butterflies, her guides and guardians on the streets. 
If you take a burrowing animal and deny it anything but a glass cage, it  will break its  own claws in the madness to escape. Naomi, who once had no escape, had created one with her mind.
Margaret Atwood, who is herself an amazing and deeply insightful author says of this book, “A heartbreaking, finger-gnawing, and yet ultimately hopeful novel…”

I have no intention of telling you in what ways the novel is hopeful or of revealing much more of the plot, but I am certain you will find this a socially significant and rewarding read. In her acknowledgements Denfeld credits libraries for her books and for her salvation. Like many of us she finds books to be a window into a better world.

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