“So—are you saying that our souls can be knocked down like houses?”
“Yes, my wise girl,” she says. “Our souls can crumble when we don’t care about our neighbors, or when we say hateful things about others, or exclude people for being different.”
This exchange between eleven-year-old Chilean Celeste Marconi and her mother, in the absorbing novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill, captures how the reign of Gen. Augusto Pinochet led not only to rampant killings and torture in the 1970s and 80s—but also to neighbor turning on neighbor and schoolchild informing on schoolchild in an “earthquake of the soul.”
In this Pura Belpré Award-winning novel by Marjorie Algosín, translated from Chilean Spanish by E. M. O’Connor, the Pinochet upheaval rocks Celeste’s Valparaíso neighborhood, sending her parents into hiding and her into exile in Maine, where she lives for some two years. She then returns to take part in both the mourning of losses and the hopeful rebuilding of society under democracy.
Brimming with historic and poetic details—Celeste dreams of becoming a writer and records everything in her notebook—this novel offers tween readers the all-too-rare marriage of a clear-eyed exploration of humanity’s failings, with reminders to take heart and hope, to have “faith in faith itself.”
Victims of the Pinochet regime are described as screaming in the bellies of ships in one passage, being pushed from planes in another. Yet the colors of Valparaíso, the sounds of its cable cars and the taste of sopaipillas, “round and warm like smiles,” remain in Celeste’s heart. The traumas of seeing a classmate bludgeoned by a guard at school, and of coming home to find Mamá and Papá gone, coexist in Celeste’s mind with firm belief in her family’s love.
Her grandmother is herself a Jew who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna by ship when only about Celeste’s age. Abuela’s German and Hebrew mingle with Spanish and a beloved nanny’s Mapadungún in Celeste’s natal household, and in Maine she tackles English, studying with a Korean immigrant who becomes a close friend. Celeste’s way of seeing riches in her complex life, and connections between Abuela’s journey and her own, heartens her and surely readers who see, but cannot yet control, complicacy and adversity in their own lives.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill is also a stirring call to solidarity, and leads me to encourage sharing the book as worries churn about Chile repeating its past.
As a story of childhood under terror that is somehow also suffused with light, this novel pairs well with the diary of Anne Frank, whom Agosín has addressed in a bilingual volume of poems.
The novel also pairs with, for middle grade readers, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. For older readers, consider sharing I Lived on Butterfly Hill with the YA novels Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, herself a translator from the Spanish and Portuguese.
- Reviews at Booklist (starred), The Pirate Tree (see also author interview), Jewish Book Council
- News release from the American Library Association about I Lived on Butterfly Hill and the Pura Belpré Award for portrayal of Latinx experience
Avery Fischer Udagawa’s translations from Japanese to English include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, “House of Trust” by Sachiko Kashiwaba in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and “Festival Time” by Mogami Ippei in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018. She is the International and Japan Translator Coordinator for SCBWI.