Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Rating: 5 stars
Some years ago I was part of a writing group which encouraged us writer-participants to share what we've read. A woman a few decades older than me read a piece based on her childhood in Chile. She wrote about the hills and the sights of the sea, how her father came home from abroad and brought a woman's shawl for a woman other than her mother. There was something captivating about her story, and after she read, she explained how she and her family (had her mother forgiven her father and they left together? I've forgotten...) fled Chile during the violent Pinochet years.
I think it was this woman's story that made I Lived on Butterfly Hill to call out to me from the library shelves. I just had to read it, and I'm so glad I finally did.
The story is about and narrated by Celeste Marconi, a young girl growing up in Valparaiso, Chile, during a time of significant political turmoil. During the first few chapters, as Agosín drops hints to describe how deeply entrenched Celeste and her family are in Valparaiso, Celeste notices large ships coming into the harbor. She hears the grown-ups whisper; with the help of a wonderful dose of magical realism that is sprinkled throughout this novel, Celeste senses that some sort of darkness about will occur. Finally, it happens: the socialist President is killed, and a dictator takes over the country.
(In the book, it is fictional President Alarcon who is killed by an unnamed sunglass-wearing dictator, not real-life Allende and Pinochet.)
Celeste struggles to understand what is going on during the first week of the new dictatorship as books are burned and new rules are imposed. Many of Celeste's classmates and neighbors are "disappeared." Her parents, both doctors who work at free clinics for the poor and publicly supported Alarcon, go into hiding. Her grandmother watches over her, then decides to send Celeste to her aunt in Maine. Traveling alone and in exile from everything she's ever known to this faraway place, Celeste makes the best of it and trusts herself and has faith in her homeland while still opening herself to another way of life, and another group of people to love.
This is an excellent, excellent book. It's a long one for middle grade readers--over 400 pages--but Agosín quickly wrapped me in an emotional story about characters about which I cared deeply, and I couldn't put it down. I loved how Celeste matured into a patriot, more certain of the future of Chile than the grown-ups who were affected and still shaky from the political turmoil.
I loved the insights young readers could get from this book: what a difference a political leader could make, what it's like being a non-native English speaker in an American school, how it isn't only Nazi Germany that has stories of escape and heroism and defiance, how many rights we Americans have that are taken for granted, the importance of literacy for a country. This book is rich with such lessons--I highly recommend it, especially if read and discussed with your child (or students).