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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld (reviewed by Will Byrnes)

Official Author Website
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Enchanted
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Child Finder

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Lost. You can be lost even when you’ve been found. You can make the wrong turn in life even if you’re surrounded by people who love you. That was what suicide was, Naomi figured. It was choosing the final exit instead of another path. Not because you wanted to hurt anyone, but because you feel too hopeless to find your way home. There was more than one kind of suicide, too, more than one kind of leaving. How many people spend their entire lives not even knowing that they have already left?
============================================================ “Children of the forgotten. Harvested like the berries of the field.”

The Butterfly Girl (changed from an earlier title, The Butterfly Museum) is the second in a series featuring private investigator Naomi Cottle. (The series opened with The Child Finder, released in 2017) Twelve-year-old Celia is not being held captive by a creepy perv, but she is certainly at risk. She is more of a throwaway child, forced into living on the street by a sexually abusive stepfather and a junkie mother, whose addiction to illegal substances and her husband’s lies exceeds her love for her child, and any notion of decency. But the streets were a kind of captivity, too. She has two besties, Rich and Stoner, a street family of three. Together they manage, picking up meals from a soup kitchen, sampling the daily delectables from dumpsters, and doing whatever is needed to bring in some cash for occasional stops at a deli, or luxuries, like bus rides. They dress in the latest designer fashions from the house of Goodwill, and have found a squat that has not yet become too dangerous, by virtue of being undiscovered by dark elements, or worse, by gentrifiers. Celia endures her fraught existence by imagining swarms of butterflies that offer her comfort and direction, and a heavenly image of a Butterfly Museum where she can enjoy their company in total safety.

Naomi Cottle has made a career of searching for children still missing after the authorities have thrown in the towel. She has a gift. Well, a gift and a ferocious tenacity. She understands that it takes not only insight, but several Imelda-size closets worth of shoe leather to get from where? to there! She has an extra bit of underlying motivation. She’d been held captive as a child herself, managed to escape, but not with her little sister. All she can remember is running in terror, barefoot, through strawberry fields. Snatches of that time come back to her in dreams, bit by bit. But her sister would be in her mid-twenties by now, and, really, what are the chances that she is still alive? Naomi decided a year ago to focus solely on the search for her sister, that search taking her to Portland. Girls, or, the remains of girls, have been turning up there in growing numbers, and Naomi is determined to find out if there might be any connection between these crimes and the taking of her and her sister.

In searching for clues to her sister’s whereabouts in Portland’s Skid Row, Naomi meets Celia, and feels a connection. She also notices a very scarred man who seems to be lurking about. Naomi follows clue after clue as the body count grows and the danger to Celia, and scores of other Portland street kids, increases. One element furthering the connection between Naomi and Celia is that, like Naomi, Celia has a younger sister she wants to save. The evil stepfather is still in the scene and mom is still a junkie, making the danger to her sister a question of when rather than whether.

We follow the tension of Naomi trying to have a personal life. Now married to her lifetime bff, Jerome, they struggle with life issues that may sound familiar:
- like what are we gonna do for money? since they have been exhausting their resources on Naomi’s full-time quest.
- Where are we gonna live?
- Can we put down roots somewhere, anywhere?

We also see flaws in Naomi, as she sometimes misses things that are right in front of her because of her obsession with finding her sister.

Denfeld brings to her writing a familiarity with street culture, and dark experiences. She has had plenty of her own. And has gotten to see much, much more in her day job as a private investigator, with particular focus on helping death row inmates. She wrote a non-fiction (All God’s Children- 2007) about Skid Row life that has some very surprising conclusions. In this one, I particularly enjoyed seeing how Naomi interacted with official sorts, offering information, analysis, and insight in exchange for help finding her sister, not just relying on convenient snitches to keep the lead-feed rolling.
"I grew up with a lot of trauma. My stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender, for instance. Much of my writing is informed by my own history, including my efforts to use my experiences to help others—I'm now a therapeutic foster mom and investigator as well as author. I did have someone close to me disappear when I was a child. It was extremely traumatic, and helps me understand when working with those who are dealing with such terrifying losses." - From GoodReads’ Ask the Author
Her other superpower is a poetic sensibility that is mesmerizing. She brings to The Butterfly Girl the same appreciation for beauty, the same admiration for imagination, and the same command of language that she wielded so deftly in her prior two books. She also shows times where unchecked imagination can get one into trouble.

Despite this being a riveting read, the notion of imagination as a saving grace, while fabulous, seems maybe a bit too similar to the mechanism the young captive used in book #1 of this series. On the other hand, the notion of captivity extending to circumstances in which one may be able to physically move about, but which are still hugely constraining is perceptive and very real. Another difference from prior Denfeld novels is her portrayal of the baddie. Previous books offered a closer look at the humanity of the people doing awful things. Although there is a bit of history presented on how the perp came to be such a twisted sort, it seemed thinner to me than the more faceted depictions of her previous bad actors.

One extra bit you should take from The Butterfly Girl is the portrait of a social realm that makes it into the news-maw only when someone not of the place is done in. The street life of homeless Portland children is no less Dickensian for being a century and a half removed from the London he showed the world. The same conditions are likely to be present in most American cities. One particular gap in social service attention to younger homeless residents is surprising and rage-inducing, as the kindness of the caring institutions and individuals trying help them is warming, and hope-sustaining. And while assaults by the better-off on those down on their luck is a popular sport in the nation’s capital and in many state capitals, that hostility is made personal and kinetic here.

One of the things that makes this such a resonant book is that Denfeld shows how a culture of rape and abuse can flourish when perpetrators are people of means and their targets are not. Headlines about Jeffrey Epstein’s long history of raping children, without being held to serious account offers a particularly relevant real-world example. The novel looks at how the silence of uninvolved people in the face of obvious wrong-doing allows such outrages to persist, and how victims of powerful criminals cannot count on the legal system to come to their defense.

CONCLUSION: You will keep flipping the pages of The Butterfly Girl to see how Naomi fares on her quest, and if Celia can remain beyond the clutches of the mysterious Portland killer. But as you read, you may notice that the beauty of Denfeld’s writing leaves small sparkles on your hands, and in your head, bits of literary pollen that attach and nourish. She remains a poet with a deep appreciation of beauty, in the world, in the imagination, and in language. She possesses a gift for story-telling, writing engaging characters, and shining a bright light into some very dark places. If you are searching for a smart, soulful, engaging, mystery/thriller, you would do well to alight on The Butterfly Girl. It is a nourishing, satisfying read that is also a thing of remarkable beauty.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's Goodreads account.


Rachel Martin said...

Denfield is amazing. Love her work. Strong female authors are so good to see doing well! I am currently reading Felicia Watson's book We Have Met the Enemy. It's very good, a space opera if you will. It's been a fun read!!


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