I Lived on Butterfly Hill

author: Marjorie Agosín 
illustrator: Lee White 
Simon & Schuster, 2014 
grades 5-up 
Chilean, Chilean American, Mapuche

Agosín is an acclaimed poet and essayist whose dozens of published works explore the lives of women and Jewish people in her native Chile and the struggle for human rights around the world. I Lived on Butterfly Hill, her first novel for young readers, is the story of 11-year-old Celeste Marconi, who lives with her parents, grandmother, and Nana (nanny who is considered part of the family) in the port city of Valparaíso, Chile.

When she sees the harbor full of large ships, Celeste knows something is wrong. Her friends don’t notice, except for Cristóbal Williams, whose magic pendulum also shows trouble. Celeste’s parents, both doctors, are busy helping the survivors of a landslide in a poor neighborhood of her city, which is built on 42 steep hills. Shortly afterward, when a military coup topples the elected democratic government, Celeste’s parents are forced into hiding. They leave the youngster in the care of her grandmother, who had escaped the Nazi Holocaust, and Nana Delfina. 

At school, things change as well. Her beloved principal flees and is replaced by a military officer. One of her best friends, along with her parents, disappears. Girls are forced to wear skirts, and boys must cut their hair short. Children who fall asleep in class, give the wrong answers, or misbehave in any way, are beaten, among them her friend, Cristóbal. Eventually, Celeste’s parents send word that it’s time for her to leave the country.

Now 12 years old, Celeste travels alone to Maine to live with her Tía Graciela, her mother’s flighty sister. Here, she adjusts to a new language and culture, but two years later, just when she begins to feel comfortable in her new home, the dictatorship falls, and she is sent back. But her parents are still missing, and with the help of old friend Cristóbal and his magic pendulum, she sets about trying to locate her parents and all the other disappeared.

I close my eyes and strain to listen. Squawk! It sounds…just like…the pelicans! “Celeste, Celeste!” But how is it that I understand—really understand, not like when I was little—what they’re saying? Squawk! Their cries are growing louder and impatient. “This way, Celeste!”

Agosín’s novel is based on a real history, though she compresses the time period—the Pinochet dictatorship in fact lasted 17 years from 1973 to 1990—and changes other details in the service of her story. In response to a question on this topic, Agosín writes, “Although this book mirrors Chilean history and the era of Pinochet, the names [of the historical figures] are invented and I re-imagined the time frame. I could not bear to make Celeste Marconi endure 17 years of a fierce dictatorship. Three was enough.”

As a result, the author’s focus is on Celeste and her world of coastal Valparaíso and coastal Maine. Both settings are exquisitely drawn, and Lee White’s charming illustrations add much to this unique middle grade novel that blends history, fantasy, and magical realism. Agosín’s skillful use of the earthquake as a metaphor—Chile has experienced some of the world’s most intense earthquakes—conveys both the preciousness and the precariousness of life:

Everyone in Chile has an explanation for earthquakes. I say that the earth has the right to yawn and stretch just as I do in my bed when I don’t want to wake early for school, and also has the right to sneeze as we all do when covered in dust.

And when the elected government teeters on the brink of a military takeover, Celeste’s mother tells her, “I feel that Chile soon will suffer many earthquakes of the soul.”
Magic and mysticism are important elements, and Agosín adds dimension and depth by showing how children and adults from the different cultures within Chile—including Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile, and Grandmother Frida, a Jewish refugee from Central Europe—incorporate the supernatural into their lives. Celeste emerges as a strong character, one who will engage and inspire middle grade readers, as she allays the suspicions of her Maine classmates to become a good friend to them and later on, as she leads a harrowing search to find her missing father. In a market filled with narrow, formulaic, cookie-cutter books, I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a standout, a novel that will challenge middle grade readers and show them that there is a fascinating and beautiful world beyond their horizons. Highly recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 8/16/14)

Parts of this review appeared in The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com) and the “Waging Peace” blog of the Albany Times-Union (blog.timesunion.com/wagingpeace).