I Lived On Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín--poetically written dictatorship and exile for the young reader

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, middle grade, March 2014).

Eleven year-old Celeste Marconi lives on Butterfly Hill in Valaparaío, Chile, a place of color, community, and friends are anchored by the love of her family.  She is privileged, she is happy, and the new president of her country seems all set to work for social justice and address the poverty that Celeste's parents, who work in a hospital for the poor outside the city, are only just now showing her.

But change comes to Chile--the president is killed, and a cold and cruel dictatorial regime (modeled on that of Pinochet) takes over the country.  Celeste's parents must go into hiding before they join the rapidly growing ranks of the disappeared, and Celeste herself is sent to live with her aunt in Maine.  Plunged into a new language and new culture.  Her journey echoes that her grandmother made, when she, a Jewish girl, had to flee Nazi Germany--a story kids in the US who may not be up on fascists dictatorships of the later twentieth century will be familiar with, giving them a frame of reference in which to conceptualize Celeste's experiences.   As an exile in Maine, Celeste struggles to find her feet--and gradually she challenges the stereotypes her new classmates have about immigrants from Latin America, while thinking hard herself about what it is to be a refuge.  (And finding her first glimmerings of love--this small side story was beautifully poignant!).

In this story, the dictatorship last only two years, instead of seventeen, and Celeste can return home while still young.  Her home city is re-emerging from the darkness of the past two years, but many are still missing, including her parents.  And so the last third of the book tells the story of how she finds her father again, and finds a place where she too can work for social justice (by creating a library, building on the books that her grandmother gathered into the hidden room of their house during the years of the dictatorship).

I read this book because it was nominated in my own Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils.   Though it seems at first to be a realistic story, it's not, for two reasons.  First, it is an alternate history--for the story to work, the dictatorship in Chile could only last two years, instead of the seventeen of the actual Pinochet dictatorship.  Secondly, there is magic in this world, beyond the subtle dreams and understandings that defy rational thought, and this magic directly affects the plot.  Celeste's friend Cristóbal Williams has the ability to see past reality with the help of a sea-glass pendulum, which warns him of the darkness to come, and later helps find Celeste's father.    Cristóbal's pendulum adds a concrete element of the fantastic that nicely complements and reaffirms the more intangible magic that fills the ordinary lives of the characters. 

So this is an fine book to offer the introspective, strong young reader; an excellent "first experience with fictionalized dictatorships and being a refugee"  book, and an excellent "don't assume every refugee has the same story" book.  I enjoyed the reading of it very much.  The writing is lovely and absorbing, in a slowish, detail-packed way, and any introverted young girl who dreams of being a writer and making a difference in the world will love Celeste.  It is a meditative book, as opposed to an angry one, one in which the celebration of Celeste's home culture and place and poetry come through much more clearly than the horror of the dictatorship.  Celeste's suffering is pretty much confined to her personal loss of her parents, her beloved home, and, to a lesser extent, lost friends.  She is often sad, but never strongly enraged; she thinks about suffering and want, but is herself protected from these things.  

This is what makes me think of this as a "first experience" book, one that allows kids who themselves are privileged and safe to start thinking about hard things.  Though I appreciate the point made by Celeste's journey that there is no single, stereotypical refugee story, I was never quite convinced that she grew from a naïve, sheltered girl to someone dramatically more aware--I would have appreciated more hard, disturbing underlining of social justice issues.   And the dreamlike quality of the whole experience is enhanced by the somewhat idealized picture of American kids in Maine appearing (in their rather brief page time) first as racist despisers and then being given set pieces to speak showing how they now love Celeste for who she is.

Here's the rather small thing that most actively bothered me-- Celeste's new mission to promote literacy at the end of the book comes from her place of privilege--her family includes Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile who is the beloved factorum of the household, who has spent her life caring for Celeste's family.  I was really bothered that Nana Delfina refers to herself exclusively in the third person (why can't she be an "I"?) and that toward the end of the book she tells Celeste, who has always known Delfina was embarrassed that she couldn't read, that she has always wanted to learn how to do so.  There she is, part of the household for decades and apparently best friends with Celeste's grandma, but with relationships of privilege and identity unquestioned all that time.

And we are told that Cristóbal's mother makes a living with a vegetable stand in the market...but the (presumably) unequal economic positions of his family and Celeste's are never brought up directly, and so it made their friendship feel sort of uncritically idealized.

So no, I didn't find it as powerful and moving social justice-wise as I might have wanted, but then, I am not a ten or eleven year old coming to these topics for the first time, and small steps are a fine way to get started.   Perhaps it is better not to overwhelm young readers, but rather to keep them reading, and learning, and thinking....

Here's another review at The Pirate Tree, by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia--the book to offer readers two years of so after they read this one!

And also at The Pirate Tree is an interview with Marjorie Agosín , in which she talks about history, magic, and her personal story.


  1. Even if the book wasn't perfect, I love to see books getting published that deal with countries we don't typically see in US fiction. Though -- I dunno, I might have been more interested if it had been a fantastical story that took place in the real Chile during real Pinochet years. That would have been a neat setting, and I'd have felt virtuous for learning something at the same time. :p

  2. Thanks for this thorough review! I might have passed by this book otherwise, but I'm interested in it now. Especially since it's got some magic in it :)


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