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Butterfly's Child: A Novel by [Davis-Gardner, Angela]
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A Letter from Author Angela Davis-Gardner


© Ed McCann
How I Came to Write Butterfly’s Child
As the curtain fell on a magnificent performance of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, a friend turned to me, and, amidst the applause and bravos, said, “I wonder what happened to Butterfly’s child.”

The question fell like a seed into fertile ground. I was just finishing a novel, Plum Wine, which is set in Japan and for which I had done extensive research about 19th and 20th century Japanese culture and history. In the world of my imagination I was still in Japan and didn’t want to leave.

My mind set immediately to work. In the tragic climax of the opera, the geisha Butterfly kills herself because her lover and her son’s father, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, has returned to Japan after a long absence with a “real” wife, an American wife, Kate. Butterfly leaves behind her a young child, after having agreed that Pinkerton can take their son with him to America. The boy--I would name him Benji, after his father, I decided-- stares down at his mother’s body, the bloody sword still in her hand. Offstage, a tormented Pinkerton sings, “Butterfly, Butterfly.”

Benji would be forever bereft, and his father racked with guilt. An implacable shadow would fall over the newly configured family-- Pinkerton, Kate, and Benji--as they settled in the American Midwest. Kate would try her best to make the poor child feel at home and to please her husband, like a good nineteenth-century wife, but she would be unable to forget her husband’s beautiful Japanese mistress, given the presence of Butterfly’s child at her table.

A lonely child and a troubled family: this is the terrain of much of my fiction. Furthermore, I was drawn to writing about a character of mixed heritage and uncertain identity, not fully Japanese nor fully American, “a bat between cultures,” as the Japanese saying goes. I had been raised in the segregated South and had long wanted to write about the appalling racial discrimination I had witnessed. I transposed my passion onto Benji’s tale, knowing that he would encounter discrimination in both America and Japan.

I began my research in Midwestern libraries and archives. One day I saw, on a nineteenth century map, a town named “Plum River” in Jo Daviess county near Galena, Illinois. I had just written a novel in which Japanese plum trees are a central image; the name seemed propitious. I got in my rented car and drove.

I found the nearby towns, Stockton and Elizabeth, still flourishing, but no Plum River. Then, on a back road that ran through fields of tall corn, I saw on the side of a dilapidated building--perhaps once a grain or feed store--the faded words, Plum River. It was a deserted community, waiting to be repopulated.

On a road that ran along a small, twisting river--Plum River, I realized--there was, on a slight incline, a place where a house might have been. I walked up the hill and stood beneath a small cluster of trees, looking out at the lush meadow, the river, the thicket of plum trees along its banks. A delicious shiver went through me. I had found the Pinkerton’s home; I had begun.

From Publishers Weekly

Immediately engaging, this quiet and measured sequel to Puccini's Madame Butterfly begins with the dramatic détente of Puccini's opera: Cio-Cio-san (Butterfly) kills herself when Pinkerton, the father of her son, Benji, returns with an American wife after four years away. Benji then travels with his father and stepmother to flat central Illinois, the polar opposite of Japan, to begin a life of hard farm labor, becoming an outsider within his family and community. Though Davis-Garner (Plum Wine) inherited her characters, they are complex, dimensional beings in her hands. There are no stock villains, perfect heroes, or tragic victims; as Benji grows up and we follow his journey in search of the family, descended from samurai, that supposedly awaits his return to Japan, the author traces the sad descent of Benji's stepmother into madness and father into alcoholism, without being trite or moralistic. Though some of the tension drains from the plot in the book's middle, Davis-Gardner reaps most of the dramatic benefits of Puccini's plot while simultaneously creating an unrushed meditation on character. (Apr.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3645 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press (March 8, 2011)
  • Publication Date: March 8, 2011
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004C43ET4
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,480 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author has given us an insightful view of the life of a mixed race child in middle America in the early 1900's. In addition, Benji's adoptive father is secretly in fact his biological father. His biological mother had killed herself in Japan. Butterfly's Child delivers a nuanced insight into the struggles of each of her characters. The insular attitude of a small town is portrayed such that the reader may visualize the delicate shivers of judge mental society women.
I don't believe the book needs the device of a reselling of Madame Butterfly. At the point that Puccini's opera becomes known to these characters as a story based on their real lives, the novel jumps a gap of credulity that just bothered me to the end of the story. While the chapters set in Japan portrayed an interesting view of the Floating World, I found the final twists again stretched the story too far.
So I have a mixed review. This writer has given us some fine character portrayals, and I wish she had skipped the opera device.
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Format: Hardcover
I have just finished this fine novel and can't wait to sing its praises. The prose is the literary equivalent of Puccini's opera. Passion is underscored by sadness. I am so drawn in from page 1 to the fate of the little half-Japanese boy, raised in the marriage that caused his mother to kill herself. Could there be a more tragic legacy? Transplanted to America, Butterfly's half-orphaned son must live in the shadow of his mother's suicide and his father's faithlessness and be raised by the woman whose very existence destroyed his fragile, beautiful mother. The little boy embodies the contradictions of two cultures and divergent parents. As sensual and moody as its subject, the novel held me in its spell and I was hesitant to re-enter the "real" world. I think Puccini would have approved. It is rare to read a novel inspired by an immortal opera and this spare yet elegant work accomplishes what could be impossible. This book would also make a fine film as I could visualize every scene.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Absolutely loved this book and recommend it highly. The author has done meticulous research about both Japan and the American Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a continuation to the tragic ending of Madama Butterfly. I attended a spectacular performance of the opera the same weekend I read the book!! What a great weekend it was.
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Format: Hardcover
Angela Davis-Gardner's story of what happens after the last aria of Madame Butterfly is poignant and beautifully crafted. As a reader, I felt I'd traveled through time to meet and observe these characters whom Puccini named and compelled to sing, but whom Davis-Gardner brings to life in ways that surprise and satisfy.

Of all the assessments I've read to date, I think the writer for Kirkus Reviews said it best: "In its way, (Butterfly's Child) holds its own alongside the modern Western masterpieces of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. For all its melancholy and madness, it strikes themes of hope and renewal, and believing in the unbelievable."

This is Davis-Gardner's best work ever. I recommend this remarkable book without hesitation, and look forward to sharing copies - and the pleasure of this experience -- with my friends.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
On a long train trip, I read this book all at one go. It was riveting, moving, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes affirming. I grew to care very much for the characters, and greatly enjoyed the evocative descriptions of faraway places and times, which are based on deep research. This is an excellent novel. My husband read it, too, and couldn't put it down.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The child of Madame Butterfly goes to America with the deceptive navy man . Imaginative story, probably accurate in the amount of culture conflict the child would have endured. Very sad story, surprise in the last portion of the book. The writing was just ok.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Taking Puccini's story of "Madame Butterfly" as a base idea and then build on it was an interesting premise. It is obvious that the author researched settings and cultural nuances which made the story interesting and believable.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This strangely flawed novel follows the plight of Benji, the five-year-old son of the Nagasaki geisha Cio Cio san and her "Ugly American" husband Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. If this sounds familiar, it could be because it's a continuation of what happens to "Trouble" as his mother calls him, after the opera, Madame Butterfly, ends.

Puccini was a great composer and dramatist who knew boundaries; unfortunately, Ms. Davis Gardner, while a decent crafts-person, knows none. There is much to admire, and I read it with interest until about 3/4 into the story when it took on a unbelievable twist.

It seemed very well researched and much insight into human nature; however, my admiration ended as the plot turned into a kind of post-modern self referential superficiality, unrelated to the earlier, fine, delving analysis of loneliness, alienation, racial problems of the late 19th century that plagued the US. It ended on an, "My, aren't I a clever, hip writer because I'm cynical and so is the world" note.

Benji, their offspring, is brought to the US by his father Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his "real American wife" (a quote from the opera) after his father's "play-thing," Japanese wife commits suicide upon learning of Pinkerton's marriage. Her sacrifice is in order give Benji a better life in America; in Japan, a "mongrel" blond haired, almond eyes boy would have no future and probably become a beggar.

The depiction of his life in America is poignant and accurate. Being called "Chink" and "Half-Breed," Benji tries to adopt in the Midwest. Christian atmosphere. His step-mother, step-Grandmother try their best to cope.
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