Monday, April 2, 2012

Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner

This novel is the author's answer to what happened to the child of the geisha Cio-Cio-san and Lieutenant Pinkerton. At the end of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly (based on David Belasco's play which was based on an 1898 story by John Luther Long), Pinkerton and his American wife have come to Nagasaki take the 3-year-old child back to America. Butterfly kills herself and the opera ends with the child waving an American flag over his mother's body.

Angela Davis-Gardner spent a year in Japan as a visiting professor at Tokyo's Tsuda College and has published three other novels. She has clearly spent time researching turn-of-the-century Nagasaki, the setting for Butterfly's story ("chocho" with a long "o" is the Japanese word for "butterfly"). The novel wants us to believe that Butterfly, Pinkerton, his wife Kate, and Benji, Butterfly's child were real people. It means that at some point she has to explain how Puccini happened to hear the story of this tragic incident in Nagasaki to write his opera.

For this version of the opera's continuation, Davis-Gardner has Pinkerton and Kate carry Benji to the family's Illinois farm where Pinkerton grew up and where he is now going to live, having given up the Navy for some reason. Pinkerton is not a very good farmer and Kate was not brought up to be a farmer's wife. Benji has blond hair and Japanese eyes, so Pinkerton and Kate have to lie to their neighbors about who he might be. In the first half of the book we watch Benji grow up, Pinkerton struggle with the farm (and alcohol), Kate suffer through childbirth and townspeople's gossip, and Keast, the local veterinarian, befriend Benji. I was about to give up on the book when a crisis causes Benji to run away.

The second half of the book follows Benji across the US and to Nagasaki where he searches for any information about his mother, and I found these adventures lively and convincing. Along the way, he picks up Japanese (which of course he had not been able to speak), a Japanese "father," and several true friends. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Pinkerton and Kate continue to suffer, eventually losing the farm.

In the paragraph above, I used the word "convincing," but I'm not sure that's correct. For all of the author's research into early 20th century Illinois farm life, the San Francisco earthquake, geisha traditions, Nagasaki geography, and much more, by the nature of things she's not writing from the inside. She wasn't there, and therefore the book—like most historical novels—feels thin or artificial to me. She never convinced me that these people in this place at that time would have thought, acted, and spoken the way she's portrayed. It's not that she's wrong, but that I cannot believe in these characters. I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the story of Butterfly's Child. That may be unfair, and another reader disagree entirely. The back cover has eight opinions disagreeing with me right there, but I'd be interested in hearing other opinions.

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