Monday, April 21, 2014

2015 Contenders: I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín

Celeste Marconi lives on Butterfly Hill, in Valparasio, Chile. She is happy there with her loving parents, her grandmother, and her beloved Nana Delfina. However, as political currents take a turn for the worse, that happy life vanishes, and Celeste is forced to take shelter far, far away (in Maine!), waiting to be reunited with her loved ones.

It's an interesting premise -- it has some similarities to Caminar, and that's a great book. However, I Lived on Butterfly Hill has some major flaws in its execution, and as a result, I don't think it's a serious Newbery contender.

The background events are more or less based on Chile's actual history, in which a leftist president (Salvador Allende) was overthrown by a brutal dictator (Augusto Pinochet), who was, in time, succeeded by a restored democracy, which would eventually produce the country's first female president (Michelle Bachelet). However, the book not only changes the names of the historical figures, but hypercompresses the time frame. In the real world, the Pinochet coup took place in 1973, and he ruled until 1990. Bachelet was the fourth post-Pinochet president, and wasn't elected until 2006. I Lived on Butterfly Hill compresses this entire period into barely three years, so that Celeste is able to return to her home while still a young teenager.

I can understand wanting to telescope the time frame so that the whole narrative can be viewed through a single character. However, I think that the alteration is so radical that, not only does it mean that the reader doesn't actually learn much about Chile's history, but it in a way minimizes the serious disruptions that the Pinochet regime wrought. As Rachael pointed out when I was talking to her about it, making the duration that short gives false impressions about how long it can take to effect change in the world.

Maybe I'd be able to overlook that issue (though I doubt it) if the book was a gripping read, but it isn't. At more than 450 pages in my ARC, it's far too long, and the action sags throughout. The scenes seem to end arbitrarily, and many of them are questionably necessary (everything featuring Mr. Carter, the mailman, could easily be cut, for instance). The sequence with Sir Fergus is a totally different tone than the rest of the book, and the whole conclusion with Celeste entering the national essay contest feels more than a little forced.

Celeste seemed awfully mature for a 11-14-year-old as well. Her writing seems perceptive beyond her years, and I just didn't buy it. That's always a danger when an adult writer is trying to voice a child writer, and I don't think it really works here.

The thing is, Marjorie Agosín is a truly accomplished writer of international renown. However, she's an accomplished adult writer -- I Lived on Butterfly Hill is her first work for children. Writing for adults isn't the same thing as writing for children, and I think the switch trips Agosín up. I'm left with a book that tells a story that is obviously important to the author, but I can't figure out why it's important to the reader.

Published in March by Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

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