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Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner
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Butterfly's Child

by Angela Davis-Gardner

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Reviewed by Mrs. Foley

Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his devout wife, Kate, bring three-year-old Benji from Nagasaki to live with them on their Illinois farm in the late nineteenth century, claiming he is an orphan, but when it becomes known that Benji is the son of Benjamin and a geisha, shock runs throughout their entire community, and Benji is freed to explore his own identity and the truth about his mother's death. - Destiny catalog record

I agree with this review from Publisher's Weekly:
Immediately engaging, this quiet and measured sequel to Puccini's Madame Butterfly begins with the dramatic detente 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.
  hickmanmc | Jun 29, 2012 |
Recently I've been dealing with a lot of stress and tragedy in my personal life, so a book with a tragic central premise would not have been my first pick. Frankly, if I didn't have to review this one, I probably wouldn't have picked it up -- and I would have lost out on a truly moving, deliciously sad read.

Inspired by Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, the story is set in the late 1890s and follows Benji, a half-Japanese, half-American boy born to a Nagasaki geisha, Cio-Cio. He's adopted at age five when his father, Frank Pinkterton, returns to Japan on his honeymoon with his American wife, Kate. Upon learning of Frank's abandonment of her, Cio-Cio kills herself and begs Frank to take care of their son. Frank and Kate conspire to hide Benji's true birth, and they invent a story about seeing him at a Christian orphanage and being moved to adopt him. They return to their Illinois farm where they live with Frank's mother, the eyes of this small town on them. You can imagine what drama unfolds.

I was very apprehensive about how Davis-Gardner would handle Kate, Frank's wife. I anticipated hating Frank and wanting to take Kate's side, but I am not so stony-hearted as to hate a child, and so I felt some immediate sympathy for Benji. Davis-Gardner felt the same way, I think, for all her characters behaved rather humanly -- and humanely -- and I found myself rather fond and sympathetic of everyone, even Frank (well, maybe not Frank). Kate was my favorite character by far: a missionary's daughter, she grew up in China and had a fondness for the 'Orient', and it was her idea they honeymoon in Japan. It was that trip that led to their discovery of Frank's child, and she understandably waffles throughout the book as to how she feels about Benji, her marriage, and her husband.

The novel explores Benji's childhood and his own search for family, and the way loss seems to beget more loss. There's a twist later in the book that I suspect will split readers, but as sort of improbable as it might be, it worked for me, as it had an operatic feel to it. (Operas have some of the most over-the-top plot twists around.)

You don't need to be familiar with the opera to appreciate this story. Not only does Davis-Gardner include a summary of the opera, but her novel stands alone -- she sets up the whole story within the first chapter, and I dare anyone not to be sucked in. This isn't a fan fic of the opera, either, but a very real examination of adoption, identity, love, depression, and early 20th century farm life. There's a blurb from Jennifer Egan on the back, about how the book "dominated" her thoughts after finishing, and I have to agree: this isn't a book I could shake off. I chewed it over, savored the sadness, and wondered at what could have been done differently. (This would make a great book club selection!) ( )
  unabridgedchick | Apr 15, 2012 |
When you read a marvelous book and you close that last page, have you ever had the characters continue to live on in your head, going beyond the end of the tale the author told, living lives no one else has ever imagined? This certainly happens to me although not as much as it used to when I was younger. And it clearly happens for people who write fan fiction and sequels. Obviously the same thing happened for Angela Davis-Gardner and as a result of her inability to leave Cio-Cio and Pinkerton's small child tragically orphaned on the stage at the end of the opera Madame Butterfly, we have her marvelous and engrossing novel Butterfly's Child.

As in the opera, the novel opens with Cio-Cio waiting for Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton's return to Japan, convinced that he will in fact come back to her and the son he never knew he had. But when he does return, it is with an American wife. Butterfly commits hairi-kiri out of love and desperation and Pinkerton and his devout wife Kate are left to decide young biracial Benji's fate. They choose to take him back to Illinois with them to their farm but instead of Pinkerton's claiming paternity, they say that Benji is an orphan whom they've adopted as is their Christian duty.

Life is not easy on the farm. Pinkerton never planned to work on it, Kate wasn't raised as a farm wife, and Benji is desperately afloat in a culture he doesn't trust with people he doesn't know and who are having a hard time caring for him emotionally given the way he remains a constant reminder of Butterfly for both Pinkertons. Without the love and caring at home to build his sense of worth, the petty racism he encounters daily in the small town is terribly isolating. Only a few people treat him as a full, intelligent human being. And so he never stops dreaming of leaving Illinois and going back to Japan to find his mother's family. When the secret of his paternity leaks out in this provincial and small-minded town, the repercussions tear the Pinkerton family apart and Benji runs away to make his long desired journey back to Japan.

The historical detail and accuracy of attitudes and beliefs are fantastic here. Davis-Gardner really captures the difficulty of being bi-racial at the turn of the 20th century, not only in the US but also in Japan. The hardship of working on a farm over tough years is realistically depicted. The Japanese areas of larger American cities are carefully detailed and brought to life. The casual racism of the time threads through Benji's everyday life just exactly as it would have, touching and soiling so much.

In Benji, Davis-Gardner has created a sad, woeful character whose search for identity and acceptance is all external until he realizes that only by finding himself within will he finally be at ease in a world not amenable to people like him. Pinkerton is a fairly loathesome character and just as in the opera, the reader wonders what both Cio-Cio and then Kate could ever have seen in the man. Kate is very buttoned-up and constrained and she tries her hardest but she ultimately finds herself unable to rise above the prejudices of the day and her eventual succumbing to deep depression is a not unexpected fate for her. Pinkerton's mother, while gruff, is one of the more sympathetic characters as is Keast, the veterinarian who takes a real and heartfelt interest in Benji.

The plot, starting with the end of the opera and growing from there, has a desultory feel to it, unspooling slowly toward a series of surprising climaxes. Benji's life in American with his father and stepmother draws out far longer than his adult life in Japan although the latter is equally as, or even more, interesting than his farm years. Just as Benji left them behind, Frank and Kate's stories are wrapped up tidily and fairly quickly in the end, the more interesting secondary characters are briefly mentioned, and the focus is solely on Benji again and the losses he's chosen to accept by only being one half of his heritage. A thoughtful and appealing tale that not only takes inspiration from the opera but also cleverly incorporates it into the tale itself, this search for self was a delight to read. ( )
  whitreidtan | Apr 11, 2012 |
Madame Butterfly, the famous opera by Puccini is the driving force behind Butterfly's Child, the novel (the opera being based on a short story.) Ms. Davis-Gardner imagines the story behind the opera and presents it as it might have happened.

From the beginning there is a feeling of both despair and hope mixed into the writing. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a naval officer has his affair with Cio-Cio (Butterfly) and he leaves not knowing of the birth of his son. Butterfly sits waiting, knowing that he will return. He sends her money every month so he must care! When he does return though, it is on his honeymoon. In despair Butterfly sends a note to Frank and he arrives at her home to find her dead at her own hand with little Benji wailing. He and his wife decide to take the boy back to America and raise him as an orphan child they adopted while in Japan.

Frank arrives back in America to take over the family farm. Benji is not warmly welcomed into the community. His obvious mixed race leads to bullying from both children and adults as he grows up; only a few people people embrace him. He clings to the few reminders he has of a childhood he barely remembers.

Secrets never stay secrets forever and Benji's comes out to the detriment of all involved. Benji leaves determined to go back "home" to Japan but he learns along the way that he does not fit in there any more than he fits in with his American family. He must forge his place in life as he searches for the family he was forced to leave.

This story of cultures clashing with an innocent child caught in the middle was well written and I found it hard to put down. Benji was an enterprising, enjoyable character. I was disappointed that his time in Japan and the ending seemed somewhat short changed compared to his time with his father in America. Once he finds his way to his place of birth the story seemed to lose its momentum. The detail so prevalent in the beginning was missing I suppose. Many questions were left unanswered so I do wonder if a sequel is planned and perhaps that is the reason.

It was overall a fascinating look at small town America and its attitude towards Japan at the end of the 19th century. Not to mention the city vs. farm social structures and attitudes. ( )
  BrokenTeepee | Apr 4, 2012 |
I absolutely loved "Plum Wine," so of course I was hoping for something equally as wonderful. The premise of this most recent novel is an interesting one: it starts at the end of the story of "Madame Butterfly" and imagines what might have happened to the half-American, half-Japanese child that went off to America with Pinkerton after Butterfly has killed herself. After such a tragedy, how could things turn out well for this child (Benji), or even for Pinkerton and his new wife?

As the reader finds out over the course of the novel, Benji has to overcome a series of cultural shocks as well as ambivalent parents and his main goal in life is to return to Japan to find his real family; Pinkerton is not only overwhelmed by the unexpected guilt he feels upon Butterfly's suicide but he also has to deal with a new life that he is totally unsuited for; and Kate, Pinkerton's new wife, is bewildered by Pinkerton's sudden change in behavior and feels incapable of adequately caring for his child.

All that is plenty of fodder for a good story, but then things take a surreal turn when the opera "Madame Butterfly" debuts in Italy and begins to tour through the United States. The life of the Pinkertons becomes intolerable as they become the focus of small town gossip.

Although this is a fairly well-written book, at times it feels a bit gimmicky, and the characters seem a bit cartoonish. ( )
  JolleyG | Jun 14, 2011 |
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Book description
When three-year-old Benji is plucked from the security of his home in Nagasaki to live with his American father, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and stepmother, Kate, on their farm in Illinois, the family conceals Benji’s true identity as a child born from a liaison between an officer and a geisha, and instead tells everyone that he is an orphan.

Frank struggles to keep the farm going while coping with his guilt and longing for the deceased Butterfly. Deeply devout Kate is torn between her Christian principles and her resentment of raising another woman’s child. And Benji’s life as an outcast—neither fully American nor fully Japanese—forces him to forge an identity far from the life he has known.

When the truth about Benji surfaces, it will splinter this family’s fragile dynamic, sending repercussions spiraling through their close-knit rural community and sending Benji on the journey of a lifetime from Illinois to the Japanese settlements in Denver and San Francisco, then across the ocean to Nagasaki, where he will uncover the truth about his mother’s tragic death.

A sweeping portrait of a changing American landscape at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a Japanese culture irrevocably altered by foreign influence, Butterfly’s Child explores people in transition—from old worlds to new customs, heart’s desires to vivid realities—in an epic tale that plays out as both a conclusion to and an inspiration for one of the most famous love stories ever told.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 038534094X, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:57 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

When three-year-old Benji is plucked from the security of his home in Nagasaki to live with his American father, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and stepmother, Kate, on their farm in Illinois, the family conceals Benji's true identity as a child born from a liaison between an officer and a geisha. But when the truth about Benji surfaces, it will splinter this family's fragile dynamic, sending repercussions spiraling through their close-knit rural community and sending Benji on the journey of a lifetime.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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