Hello, everyone! I wanted to start this review with a love letter to author Rene Denfeld. I recently read her fantastic essay “The Green River Killer and Me,” which reflects on her adolescence as a homeless teen living on the streets of Portland during the murder spree of one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. It’s a heartbreaking and illuminating essay, and all the more powerful because it’s true.
Denfeld is a singular writer because she writes from the soul, and uses her own experiences not only to educate her readers, but also to implore them to have empathy for the plight of overlooked and stigmatized groups. Denfeld’s novel The Butterfly Girl does all of this, and more. Semi-autobiographical, with a twist of magical realism, the novel puts the reader in the shoes of a a protagonist we’ve been conditioned to ignore, and forces us to hear her story.
Synopsis: Nicknamed “The Child Finder,” Private Investigator Naomi Cottle has a talent for finding missing children, especially when the case has gone cold. Once a missing child herself, Naomi has devoted her time trying to remember her past, and track down her sister, too. Her fruitless search leads her at last to the streets of Portland, where an unknown specter is murdering the homeless. Naomi soon comes across Celia, a homeless tween whose only goal is to stay alive, and as their friendship grows, Naomi is torn between finding her lost sister, and protecting Celia.
My thoughts: Even with its disturbing and tragic subject matter, The Butterfly Girl reads like a poem. Denfeld’s style is stark and beautiful. There are no frills, which can make reading about terrible subject matters like sexual abuse, murder, and poverty all the more chilling. That’s the point. Denfeld doesn’t want to hide the harsh realities of homeless children behind distractions. She wants the reader to feel the sense of hopelessness on every page.
The story itself is just as sparse, which I really appreciated. Denfeld does not beat around the bush. She does not wax poetic. Instead, she writes economically, getting from Point A to Point B rapidly, yet without the sense of ever rushing. The result is a work of crime fiction that is as satisfying as a long-form journalistic piece. The mystery is solved as efficiently as possible, and without the mopey introspective fluff that is usually involved in contemporary crime fiction. And yet, even without resorting to the standard depressed, alcoholic detective, Denfeld still manages to write a lead character who is introspective, thoughtful, and three-dimensional.
Her lead, Naomi Cottle, stands out amongst the pack. She’s defies the stereotype that many fictional female detectives fall into. She’s tough and independent, but still manages to have a loving romantic relationship with her husband, who is a fascinating character in his own right. She’s intelligent and talented, but not arrogant. And she’s emotional without being self-destructive. One of the problems I have reading crime fiction is that all of the detectives are the same, all brooding addicts with harrowing pasts and barely functional personal lives. It gets old after a while, and stops feeling realistic. Denfeld never falls into this trap. Naomi is a flawed human being with an incredibly traumatic past, but she’s not defined by that past, and she still lives a fulfilling and successful life, which, to me at least, is far more interesting that watching a “brilliant” male detective drink himself to death while lamenting his failures. Jo Nesbø, if you’re reading this, I love Harry Høle, but give the masochistic Nordic thing a break! Anyways…
Naomi is the star of the novel, but Celia is its heart. Her story of child homelessness, sexual abuse, and parental neglect is infuriating to read because it’s so common, and Celia’s daily struggle to find food, shelter, and adequate healthcare becomes depressingly mundane the more the reader is exposed to it. With fiction, it’s often easy to ignore commentary on societal problems in favor of focusing on the plot. But in this novel, the societal problems form the basis for the plot. They can’t be hidden behind a veneer of make-believe. And the fact that the events in the plot can be derived from the author’s own experiences make it even more important for the reader to acknowledge these realities.
Reading The Butterfly Girl is hard because of the tragedy involved, but it’s also a rewarding experience. It’s clear that Denfeld can see the light at the end of every tunnel. She was able to climb out from her own miserable circumstances and become a writer and advocate for homeless youth. It would be impossible for her to deny that same happy ending to the characters in her book. Yes, The Butterfly Girl is the type of book that might keep you up at night, but it will also put a smile on your face. It’s the type of book that knows that the world is neither all good nor all bad, and wants to reflect that truth. As a work of crime fiction, it’s a compelling, heart-wrenching read. But The Butterfly Girl is more than that. It’s one part a memoir, one part a poem, and one part a testament of a life that most people will be lucky enough to never have to experience.