by Angela Davis-Gardner
Review by Literary Places
The story isn’t over when the spurned Asian wife kills herself just as her American husband discovers their child.
The dramatic conclusion of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opera is the opening scene of Angela Davis-Gardner’s novel Butterfly’s Child, a beautifully rendered continuation of the ill-fated, cross-cultural love story.
When the curtain closes in the opera, the next chapter begins. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton has a wife, Kate, to answer to and a son, Benji, for whom he must assume responsibility.
The alternative is to abandon the boy in Japan where as a mixed-race child, Benji would be impossible to adopt and forced to live on the streets, prey to disease and criminals, the American consul Sharpless tells Frank. Guilt-ridden and anxious not to lose the blonde wife he had wanted for so long, Frank strikes a bargain with Kate, who after discovering his “vulgar liaison” tries to hide her anger and disgust.
The couple take Benji back to Plum River, Illinois to live with them on the family farm that Frank takes over from his father. Kate, the child of American missionaries in China, extracts a promise from Frank: no one is ever to know of the boy’s true parentage.
A notice in the local paper announces the Christian couple have brought back with them from Asia a “heathen child in their midst to rear as nearly their own as possible.”
Nearly but not quite. Franklin’s mother, who comes to live with the family, is kind to Benji and Franklin himself tries to be fatherly towards the boy. But the family’s lies are at constant risk of exposure. Benji can’t understand the facade he’s forced to live behind especially when his entire life has been about waiting for his Papa-san to return.
Bristling underneath the already volatile situation is the very tense Kate Pinkerton. Noting the boy plays only with a ball of string left to him by his mother Cio-Cio San, Kate orders a box of toys for him and encourages him to speak only English. But despite these little signs of tolerance and gentleness, Kate’s frustrations at constantly maintaining the lie of who is Benji’s real father, flares into the open at times. At hearing Benji call his father Papa-san, she explodes into a rage.
“She sat him down hard on a stool, held him pinned against the sink, and picked up the bar of lye soap. ‘No Papa-san,’ she said. ‘Why can’t you understand?’ He glared at her with fierce black eyes. She pried open his mouth and scrubbed his tongue.”
Davis-Gardner, a professor emerita at North Carolina State University, spent a year in Japan as a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Tsuda College and Butterfly’s Child is her second novel to be inspired by her time in Asia. Plum Wine, the first, was about an American teacher in 1960s Tokyo. In Butterfly’s Child, Davis-Gardner has done an expert job in portraying more than just the disconnect between the cultures but also the chasm between the expectations of children of their parents and between husbands and wives.
Davis-Gardner gives each member of this unwilling family equal sympathy, equal objectivity and drawn them as fully developed characters, faults and all. Benji’s stubbornness threatens what little peace the family has and Frank’s dependence on alcohol evolves into violence.
The most detailed character is Kate, even more so than Benji, for her reactions are more telling and realistic than the motivations of the boy and the father whose actions have forced them together. Her need for control is drawn vividly by Davis-Gardner and Kate’s descent into madness when that control splinters apart is heartbreaking.
From the opening scenes in NagasakiNagasaki to the farmlands of Illinoisand then back to a serene Japan, Davis-Gardner’s assuredness of her settings and her characters’ motivations keeps the pace of the novel brisk.
The only point in which it drags is the sudden emergence of Puccini’s opera as a complicated exposure of what had been a simple family secret. How the reality of the fictional opera intersects with the fictional reality of the novel isn’t fully explained.
But the impact of that crossroads has far-reaching effects, leading to another unexpected reappearance. The conclusion, unsatisfying as it is in tying up all the loose ends, does somehow make sense. Butterfly’s Child is more than the epilogue to the opera, which itself, as the author notes, is a retelling of a play and has its origins in an 1898 short story. The novel stands on its own but when the final chapter closes, as the curtain does in the opera, the characters remain alive, their stories waiting to be continued, the reader still wanting to know what happens next.
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