by Marjorie Agosín
trans. E. M. O’Connor
While breezing into the children’s room at the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library, headed for the juvenile fiction with Moomins on my mind, the pretty cover of this book stopped me in my tracks. Lee White’s work is bound to do that, with its glowing colors, but the black and white illustrations that fill I Lived on Butterfly Hill seemed especially luminous. A flip through the book and a glance at the plot – a girl leaves troubled Chile and travels to the coast of Maine – was enough to make me wedge it under my arm. I got round to reading it over a long weekend spent in Ohio at the Sky Cabin.
Celeste loves living in Valparaíso. She loves the steep hills above the sea, covered in colorful houses. She loves the pelicans that fly past the window of her blue room every morning. She loves the humitas made by her Nana Delfina, and the blue scarves that her Abuela Frida knits endlessly. She loves the fact that her doctor parents accept eggs and vegetables in payment for their services. She loves the fact that Chile has new hope, now that the new Presidente has promised to help the poor and make all Chileans responsible for looking out for one another.
But the boats in the port, stranger and so much larger than she is used to seeing, bother her. And the magic pendulum that her friend Cristóbal Williams has grown up trusting, swings in a worrying fashion. Soon enough the ‘earthquake of the soul‘ that her Mother spoke of rocks Chile, and the world Celeste has known disappears – as do friends, the principle of her beloved school, and her pelicans. Celeste finds her life in a tailspin – the Presidente dead, her parents in hiding, marked as ‘subversives’, and herself on her way to an impossibly far and foreign land.
Safe with her Tía Graciela in Juliette Cove, Maine, Celeste faces the challenges of a new land, language, and loneliness. With the resilience of a thoughtful child, in touch with the supernatural aspects of life, Celeste finds new bravery and joy within herself. She comes to love her blue room in Maine and the grey houses above the grey sea. Just as she is getting settled though, the dictatorship in her first home comes to an end and she is sent back to Chile. She must find even deeper sources of strength to draw on if she is going to find her parents and help rebuild her country.
The author of I Lived on Butterfly Hill escaped the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship with her parents, and she draws heavily from the experience in this book. It is based on real events, but the timeline is significantly squashed (Pinochet was in power for 17 years, not 2!) Perhaps this is because the book is aimed at middle-grade readers, but interestingly, Agosín doesn’t skimp on details regarding setting and explores the ways that Celeste finds meaning and understanding amid the chaos of her circumstances. She also brings in cultural depth with the use of characters like Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile, and Celeste’s Abuela, a German Jew who escaped Vienna with the Nazi’s on her heels.
The writing is pretty, even piercing at times, and Celeste is a character who grabs you. The ‘earthquake of the soul‘ line keeps ringing in my ears, and there are a couple of passages about what it means to be an exile that roughed me up a bit. I hope that there are kids out there who will be challenged and inspired by this book. It certainly gave me a lot to think about.
I’ve spent some time refreshing my memory on the historical framework for the story, which of course is somewhat disheartening. Reading an interview with author Isabel Allende (niece of Salvador Allende, the Presidente that Celeste knew as Alarcón), I came across this:
“Fear is a very powerful tool and Pinochet used it successfully. He controlled the military, the judiciary and there was no Congress; there was no freedom of the press, no habeas corpus, no right to dissent. He imposed an economic system that seemed successful at the beginning, although it benefited the capitalists while it maintained the labour force under an iron fist. The gap between the very rich and the poor in Chile is still shameful.”
“It is very hard to live in fear. Out of necessity, one adapts rapidly. Denial is a way of protecting oneself. There is a feeling of impotence and loneliness. Terror works by isolating people.
Ideally, every little family is at home watching the official version of the news on TV, there is no interaction, no public discourse, no dialogue or discussion, no exchange of ideas that might stir rebellion.”
It’s easy to say that things in this country aren’t bad, that we don’t live under a dictatorship, that we have all kinds of rights and laws. But that’s not something I can say or see anymore. Instead, I see those laws protecting only some of us, and those rights being carefully limited. Our Congress barely functions, our military is feared world-wide. Our economic system is broken, and the gap between the rich and poor is shameful. The press is controlled and television has been a propaganda machine since it’s conception.
Americans live in so much fear, and out of necessity, they medicate. They live behind walls and walls and walls of denial. I am surrounded by people who are frustrated to the point of impotence, isolated and lonely. Some days I think I’m one of them, and that really is terrifying.
Fear is something that Celeste learns to let go of, even if for only a moment. Those moments count. They add up. She pays attention, and she thinks about what she sees. She refuses to be quiet, because ‘ “How can we figure things out if we all stay silent?!” ‘
In America we haven’t let soldiers start burning books, but folks sure like to try and censor them. I Lived on Butterfly Hill doesn’t have sex or too much violence or swear words in it, but I’d say it’s pretty subversive, full of dangerous ideas. I hope that kids will read it and pay attention, and think about what they read. What happened in Chile will happen again – is very quietly happening all around us right now. We need more kids like Celeste – and many more adults like her.
I’ll be following the threads from this book for awhile (need to revisit Pablo Neruda’s poetry, read a bio of Salvador Allende, go to Valparaíso! and of course there’s more to read from the author herself, a prize-winning poet and human rights activist…) Read it for a good story, but it’s so much more than that.
Further reading: ‘Here, in a piece from the New Statesman published in March 1974, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez explores Allende’s record in Chile, his rivals’ dealings with the United States and the rise of his successor – the army general Augusto Pinochet.‘