Tuesday, May 26, 2015

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, E.M. O'Connor (translator)

Told from the viewpoint of 10-year-old, Celeste Marconi, this tale is set in Chile during the 1970s and based on the true story of the assassination of a Socialist president and rise of a dictator. Celeste's parents are doctors with a clinic that serves poor people in Valparaiso. When a coup occurs, soldiers take over the city and her school. People start to disappear including teachers, artists, and anyone that supported the previous president. As fear descends over the city like the constant fog from the harbor, Celeste's parents go into hiding. Celeste lives in her home with her grandma and nana. When the soldiers at school hit her friends and neighbors start to go missing, she is sent to live with an aunt in Maine where she starts a new life.

When the dictator loses power after two long years, Celeste goes back to her country to find that much has changed from the hardships and persecution. She is determined to find her parents while the adults in her life caution her against asking questions. Fear is still dominant and enemies can still rise like stay-cat shadows. Covering the span of three years, Celeste changes from a girl with an idyllic childhood to one that cherishes freedoms that come from education and reading. Beautifully written, the character is a bit too perfect for me and the plot could have been tightened. At 450 pages the suffers in spots.

The imagery is gorgeous with the clouds symbolizing Celeste's wandering the globe or daydreaming. Ominous clouds foreshadow the persecution and oppression. Pelicans throughout symbolize freedom and the lighthouse shows how all people are alike no matter where they live in the world. Celeste is told to shine like a lighthouse as a beacon in the midst of evil. The beginning captures the beauty of Valparaiso with its unique smells, tastes, sounds, and steep harbor views. The neighborhood is noisy and jostling with earthquakes and people.

Celeste is a bit too perfect in my book. She always reacts the right way. Even when she is angry, it turns to understanding almost immediately. When characters don't have flaws of any sort, it feels like an adult is speaking and using the character to teach a lesson. There is a fine line between didactic characters and authentic characters and Celeste seemed like a voice-piece for tolerance. It is a good message, don't get me wrong, but without flaws I find this type of character less three-dimensional.

The plot is in three parts beginning in Valparaiso, then Maine, then back to Valparaiso. The bridging of two cultures was interesting but I was not quite as enthralled with the last part. That was when the character does these inspiring things, but Celeste becomes too perfect and people conveniently show up to help her or she gets an idea from a magic stone. Plus the reader knows she's looking for a parent and that she will find him or her because up to this point everything is going her way. Except there were two instances where people disappeared and she couldn't find them. Like I said, it is just the last third that doesn't come together for me.

But then again, there was a nice twist in the third part. What seemed predictable (winning a writing contest) turns into something more. Good writers do that. They go one step further so that what seems predictable is not. The grandma's character is nicely woven as a supporting character. She survived the Holocaust and plays a part in helping Celeste understand persecution and survival. She is a tough shell and has a few surprises up her sleeve. Don't be fooled by her naps. She's very much alive and active.

Most of this story is beautiful and like I said I had a bit of a problem with the end. Unfortunately, that is the part that is the most fresh in my mind so I am being a little more negative than I probably would, if let's say, the middle was the part I didn't like. There are some good messages and many that apply to kids that are outsiders or marginalized for whatever reasons in school. Celeste is teased when she first goes to school in Maine because she doesn't speak English. Later she becomes friends with the kids and says they don't get home cooking because they grow up on frozen foods. I laughed at that generalization.

At school, Celeste is good at math and comments on numbers being easy because English isn't necessary to understand them. This is true with ESL students. Oftentimes they are good at math while their brains try to sort through learning a different language. Also, Celeste is fluent in German and Spanish. It is usually easier for a kid to learn a third language quickly so it is plausible that she got that good in English in a couple of years. It has also been established that she is a keeper-of-words, lugging a notebook around because she loves to write.

She describes missing her home country and family as a "constant ache" and living with one foot in Valparaiso and the other in Maine. I feel like I have three feet. One in Taiwan where I work, one in Minnesota where my parents are, and one in Washington where my grandson lives. Then there is Celeste's aunt that has decided to live in a different country. She has a home there and does not look like she will ever go back to Valparaiso. As Celeste says, "You belong everywhere and nowhere at all." This is a great book for stepping into a different culture and tasting its foods, riding its steep cable cars, smelling its flowers, and meeting its people.

4 Smileys

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