Puccini’s haunting opera, Madame Butterfly, ends with Butterfly’s suicide when her long-awaited lover, the cavalier naval officer, Pinkerton, finally returns to Nagasaki accompanied by his “real” wife, Kate. Realizing the situation, Butterfly agrees to give up their son then falls on her father’s sword. Pinkerton takes the boy to America where, presumably, Kate will raise him as her own.
In real life, of course, the story would not have ended there. Davis-Gardner picks up the thread to create a wonderful sequel to Puccini’s opera. As in real life, the characters in Butterfly’s Child are complex and not always lovable. This and the hardships of farm life in turn-of-the-century Illinois make for the harsh environment in which Butterfly’s child, Benji, struggles to adapt, to find acceptance as a child of mixed race, and to follow his dream. The dream takes him from Pinkerton’s homestead through Iowa and Colorado, then to San Francisco and the earthquake of 1906 and then beyond – but telling where would spoil the story.
In form, Butterfly’s Child mimics a musical presentation. It is divided into Overture, Parts, an Interlude, and Finale. Each section moves the story forward at a steadily accelerating pace. The author allows time for rich detail of place, personalities, and historical events. But, she draws the reader in irresistibly to a totally surprising turn in Part Three. What was until then just a fine, sensitive, and complex story becomes a truly great one. I would put Butterfly’s Child at the top of your winter reading list.