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Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is a well-known opera. Many operas, this one included, are based on stories or plays. This story, Madame Butterfly, by John Luther Long was published in 1898, and later dramatized by David Belasco, before being set to music for opera by Puccini. The opera premiered at La Scala on 17 February 1904.

The plot of the opera is, very briefly - “Set in Japan during the early 20th Century, Pinkerton, an American naval officer, marries geisha girl Cio-Cio-San - Butterfly. Pinkerton establishes a home for her before setting sail again. A son is born and Butterfly waits, faithfully, for Pinkerton’s return. It is several years later before he returns – with an American wife. The couple decide to take the child to be raised in America. Cio-Cio-San reluctantly surrenders him, and after bidding farewell, commits suicide.” Madama Butterfly is one of opera’s great tragedies.

I have seen this opera several times, yet somehow I did not know that the story was apparently based on true events - a tale the author of the original short story  heard from his sister who claimed to have met Pinkerton’s son in Nagasaki.

Author Angela Davis-Gardner took all of this and ran with it. Her novel Butterfly’s Child is a wonderful supposition of what really happened to all of these characters. We learn about the life of Cio-Cio-San’s son, called Benji in America, where he lives with his father, Franklin Pinkerton and his wife, Kate. It is not an easy life. Pinkerton has taken over the family farm, where the family lives with Pinkerton’s mother. Benji is a mixed race child living in a very white world. Pinkerton and Kate claim that they have adopted him, and do not reveal that he is in fact Pinkerton’s son – although many suspect.

Not knowing that there may be more than a kernel of truth in this story, I had to keep reminding myself that Butterfly was not a real person, and that this book is not historical fiction – although it seems, in fact, it may be. Opera so often reveals just the surface of a story, so what I found wonderful about this novel is that it filled in all of the background to the opera, and all of what came after the tragic end.

We re-visit Butterfly, through Pinkerton’s memory, to the time that he lived in Japan. We also come to know the American wife, Kate. We don’t get to know much about her in the opera, but in the novel she becomes a central figure. We learn what it might have been like for her to raise her husband’s child on a remote farm, and the effect this has on her marriage.

The death of Cio-Cio-San, by suicide, has a profound effect on both Benji and his father. While Pinkerton buries his regret and sense of responsibility deep, Benji holds on to the few memories he has of his mother. As he grows older Benji is determined to find a way to return to Japan to find his mother’s family. Here he will make startling discoveries about his past.

If you don’t already know the opera, I am sure you will want to attend a performance once you have finished reading Butterfly’s Child.

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