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Butterfly's Child: A Novel Hardcover – March 8, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press; First Edition edition (March 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385340946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385340946
  • ASIN: 038534094X
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,086,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 15, 2012
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: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Angela Davis-Gardner's novel, "Butterfly's Child" is a "what if" book - in this case, what if we know what happened to Cio Cio San's child, orphaned by her suicide. His new American family have named him Benji to avoid any allusion to Benjamin Franklin. In this imaginative romp across the American mid-west, San Francisco, and finally his return to Nagasaki, the reader experiences the life of Pendleton's child (the lieutenant is not much kinder with others than he was with Butterfly) - and is largely responsible for his son's running away to find his mother's family.

A vivid portrait of 19th Century racism is presented as author David-Gardner portrait of Benji's pale complexion and hair competing with black eyes and elided eyes which he attempts to pass as Japanese by dying his hair with black shoe polish. He does, of course, meet sympathetic people, curiously enough most often Japanese who recognize and accept his bi-racial birth.

"Butterfly's Child" is a provocative story, one we can readily imagine taking place, but it could be better if the characters were not so expected, so committed to good/bad roles. I'd have liked to know more of their inner thoughts, more about how they become what they do. Example: Franklin Pendleton's cruelty could be better explained and his repentance more acceptable if we knew who he truly was. What we see is a cardboard villain with whom it is difficult to sympathize.

As it is Ms. Davis-Gardner's novel is a good fast read with lots of interesting twists and turns about the United States and Japan a hundred years ago. I recommend it as a surprising addition to a shelf of new American historical novels.
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