Butterfly’s Child

A Novel
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When three-year-old Benji is plucked from the security of his home in Nagasaki to live with his American father, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and stepmother, Kate, on their farm in Illinois, the family conceals Benji’s true identity as a child born from a liaison between an officer and a geisha—and instead tells everyone that he is an orphan. When the truth surfaces, it will splinter this family’s fragile dynamic and send Benji on the journey of a lifetime from Illinois to the Japanese settlements in Denver and San Francisco, then across the ocean to Nagasaki, where he will uncover the truth about his mother’s tragic death.

Don’t miss the exclusive conversation between Angela Davis-Gardner and Jennifer Egan at the back of the book.


"Extraordinary...To give away any of the astonishing plot twists and revelations would deny the reader the thrill of a totally transforming and satisfying finale. Sometimes bold and gripping, often delicate and sensual, Butterfly’s Child is utterly unique and entirely enchanting."--The Washington Post

"This spectacular novel manages to be many things at once: an exploration of race and difference; a viscerally tragic love story; a sweeping, authoritative portrait of late 19th century Midwestern life; a poignant inquiry into the burdens and hardships of women; and a clever reimagining of Puccini’s opera. Butterfly’s Child eclipsed my own life while I was feverishly immersed in it, and dominated my mood and thoughts long after I’d finished.”
—JENNIFER EGAN, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

"The kind of book you sink into, becoming so transfixed by the story that you cannot help devouring it in just a few sittings. Davis-Gardner has created a masterful novel and an engaging read."—Charlotte Observer 

"Book club alert:...a highly readable sequel to the tragic opera that works within the characters' existing framework while still managing to sneak in a few surprises."--Christian Science Monitor

"An absorbing what if? that stands on its own merits, Butterfly's Child is...a novel that demands to be read in one sitting. The characters hate and love with murderous intensity whether plowing a field, quietly embroidering a sampler, or canning beets. And their drama, played out with no less passion in cornfields and general stores, sparsely furnished bedrooms and musty parlors, moves toward an ending as unexpected as it is revealing."--Atlanta Journal Constitution

"A magical journey, a heartbreaking tale of family ties and the tears of the heart...I don’t know when I have been as completely enthralled by a book as I was by Butterfly’s Child. It’s a classic to come."--The Pilot (NC)

“A richly imagined literary sequel to Puccini's Madama ButterflyIn its way, it holds its own alongside the modern Western masterpieces of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy...It strikes themes of hope and renewal, and believing in the unbelievable.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Very appealing...this is the type of novel many readers will want to finish in one sitting."—Library Journal

"Extraordinary...With deft imagination, and prose as delicately suggestive as the design on a kimono, Angela Davis-Gardner spins a provocative and persuasive account of what transpires after the curtain falls. Familiarity with Madama Butterfly is not a prerequisite for appreciating this finely wrought novel...That said, anyone unfamiliar with Puccini will likely seek out a production immediately after turning the last page, while fans of the opera will never experience it in quite the same way again."--Opera News

Immediately engaging…Though Davis-Gardner inherited her characters, they are complex, dimensional beings in her hands.”—Publishers Weekly 

"A unique and beautiful story...deeply moving. Once you enter Benji’s world and begin his journey, there’s no turning back. I read this book in 48 hours and did not stop until I finished the book."—The Charlotte Weekly

"A story appealing to those who avoid opera as well as to fans who also may have wondered what happened to Butterfly's child...Davis-Gardner's characters may be flawed, but they are human, with all the complexity and range of emotions that entails."--Charleston Post and Courier

"A novel nearly as lyrical and operatic as the original...prob[es] the fault lines between East and West, where each side strains to meet but where efforts at translation often fall short."—Star News

"Vivid details about Japanese life and the opera's history enrich this thoughtfully rendered story about love, betrayal and eventual reconciliation...Ingenious [and] persuasive."--Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Opera buffs and literary fiction fans will appreciate the depth and the tenor of this worthy successor to a classic tale of love and loss."—Booklist

"I enjoyed the novel and read it in two sittings. The ending is unexpected and I hope that Davis-Gardner writes a sequel."—Guelph Mercury

"Davis-Gardner has done an expert job in portraying more than just the disconnect between the cultures but also the chasm between the expectations of children of their parents and between husbands and wives."--Asian Review of Books

“Who ever thought the story was over? There was, after all, a child...Expansively imagined, carefully researched, and beautifully told, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever longed to know what came next after that famous unhappily-ever-after ending.”—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“Secrets unfold like a Japanese fan in Butterfly's Child. With jewel-like prose, Angela Davis-Gardner has created an enchantment—a novel so beautiful, mysterious, and compelling that I had to stay up into the wee hours to finish it in one sitting.”—Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls

Brilliant and inspired . . . Butterfly's Child reveals, in ways both devastating and surprising, how the human heart and the world we live in are rarely as they appear. Once you enter Benji's world and begin his journey, there is no turning back and no slowing down." —Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

“I read Butterfly’s Child in one day, totally hooked. It is a captivating novel of love, guilt, sin, justice—and how all these things are, in time, transformed surprisingly and inevitably.”—Josephine Humphreys, Southern Book Award–winning author of Nowhere Else on Earth
“An utterly fascinating and entertaining novel whose transcultural themes are particularly relevant today. It is also a deftly and lyrically written novel, well deserving of a wide readership.”—Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
“Angela Davis-Gardner weds artful, beautifully sensuous prose to deeply involving, page-turning story. She’s among our best. Take the word ‘our’ in that sentence to mean everyone, anywhere—the whole human family.”—Richard Bausch, author of Peace

“What happened to the son of Madame Butterfly, the tragic heroine of the operatic masterpiece? Davis-Gardner tells his enthralling story in a complex but tightly knit novel that is entrancing to read, beautiful to remember.”—Fred Chappell, former poet laureate of North Carolina and author of I Am One of You Forever

Butterfly’s Child is one of the finest books by a living writer that I have read in years. Davis-Gardner explores, with great tenderness, a boy’s search for family, and she moves between the American and the Japanese cultures in a way that both informs and involves the reader completely.”—Elizabeth Cox, author of The Slow Moon
“Beautifully written and deeply stirring, this is a timeless rendering of marriage at its best and worst, of the lengths a parent will go for a child, of how one decision or action can roll on and on in its effects. Butterfly’s Child has the drama of an opera and the meticulous realism of a profound psychological novel.”—Peggy Payne, author of Sister India

"A lovely, haunting novel, layered and beautifully written…I was captured by this book and couldn't put it down." –Susan Richards Shreve, author of A Student of Living Things

“Amid the dullness and small mindedness of 19th century American life, Davis-Gardner's Japanese characters—especially the indomitable Benji—stand in bright contrast.  Davis-Gardner enlightens us with her subtle insights and startles us with one major surprise, in this touching story of an Asian mother who sacrifices everything for her child.”—David Guy, author of Jake Fades and The Autobiography of My Body

"The author allows time for rich detail of place, personalities, and historical events. But, she draws the reader in irresistibly to a totally surprising turn in Part Three. What was until then just a fine, sensitive, and complex story becomes a truly great one. I would put Butterfly’s Child at the top of your winter reading list." --Historical Novels Review


Oh, the bitter fragrance
of these flowers
spreads in my heart like poison.
Unchanged is the room
Where our love blossomed.
But the chill of death is here.
My picture….  (He lifts a photograph from the table)
She has thought of me.
                                  Madame Butterfly, Act I
             Kate imagined how odd they must appear to people who strolled past them on deck, casting covert glances their way:  a blond, blue-eyed man and woman sitting in silence, on the man’s lap a child with a Japanese face and light hair.  All three of them motionless, staring out at the sea like revenants, the boy immobile as a statue, clutching  a multicolored string ball.
            She drew her blanket more tightly about her shoulders.  She should say something.  They would look less strange in conversation.
            “How can it be so cold in May?” she asked, trying to smile.
“The black current,” Frank said. “Kuro – kuroshiwo.” He made a snaking motion with one hand.  “It’s a mysterious, shifting current that runs along the coast of Japan and then out to sea. We should be leaving it soon.”
She gazed out at the gray water, the dark line of Japan receding, then at the boy.  Yesterday they had carried him kicking and biting to the hotel but he hadn’t made a sound since recovering from the sedation. The doctor said he was in profound shock – how much did the doctor know about the circumstances? she wondered.  Poor child.   She looked at him, his small hands gripping the ball as if his life depended on it. 
“What shall we call him?” she said. They were to sit at the captain’s table tonight, and hadn’t discussed how to introduce the boy. “He can’t  remain Benjamin.  It would be a clear signal to the world that he’s your child. Everyone knows you were named for Benjamin Franklin.”
Frank said nothing. He was uncomfortable, of course, she thought, racked with guilt, but they had to discuss this bizarre situation; it was his responsibility, after all.
God help me, she prayed silently.  She must remember that he had married her and not that awful woman.  
“It would be one thing if he looked completely Japanese,” she said. “Remember your promise.”  The condition under which she’d agreed to take the boy home with them was that no one would know his parentage.  “Frank?”
“Yes, darling.”  He looked at her.  Today his eyes were grey, but they could be blue or blue-green depending on the surroundings and his mood. From looking at the sea so many years, he’d told her.  He reached beneath the blankets to take her gloved hand. “I agree – anything you say.”
“What about a simple Japanese name?  Surely he has one.  Ask him.”
Frank spoke to the boy in halting Japanese.
“Benji,” the boy said. It was the first word he had spoken.
“You could give him a Japanese name,” Kate said.
“It would make life harder for him in America to have a Japanese name.”
“Well – an American name then.”
They considered William, David, Michael, then settled on Tom, one syllable, easy for the boy to learn.
“What do you think, Tom?”  Frank said, giving the boy a little shake. “Anata -- anata namae wa Tom, desu ne?”
The boy turned, holding up his ball so that it blocked his view of Frank’s face.  “Watashi wa Benji!”  he screamed.  He rolled off Frank’s lap and went flying down the deck.  Frank took off after him; Kate unfurled her blankets and followed.
She found Frank at the back of the ship, gazing frantically about. The deck was empty, the boy nowhere in sight.
Perhaps he had leapt overboard.  Anything  was possible; he was in a state of lunacy.  She scanned the wide fan of  wake behind the ship.
“Here he is,” Frank yelled.  He had found him squatting behind a large spool of rope.  The boy was sucking on his ball, his eyes closed.
Frank lifted him out. “Benji it will have to be, for the time being,” he said. 
“He shouldn’t get his way with tantrums,” she whispered, glancing at a couple walking past.  The woman, wrapped in fur, stared at them avidly; the man tipped his hat with a slight, superior smile. “He’ll be spoiled beyond salvation.”
“It’s not just a tantrum,” Frank said. “Remember what happened to this boy.”
 “I’m not likely to forget.” She made her way back down the deck to the cabin.
Later that  afternoon the ship began to roll, rising high, slapping down hard. Kate lay in her berth, dizzy and nauseated. The cabin was claustrophobic and the motion relentless; she felt as if the pitching of the ship and her nausea and the voyage were never going to end,  that she would be mired  in this torment forever. 
Frank opened the door to the cabin, leading the boy by the hand.  “I’ve been mulling it over,” he said, leaning down to peer at her. “What’s the matter darling? Seasick?”
 “ I’m so sorry.  Do you feel like hearing my idea  about the name?”
 She nodded. Frank and the boy were going up and down in her vision. The boy was staring at her with those black eyes.  She shifted her gaze to the left and fixed on the sink.
“We must call him Benji, because eventually he’s going to let slip that was his name.  So I thought I could tell people this: the priest at a church, where we can say we found him, called him Benji after me, having no other choice at hand, and by the time we came to fetch him, the name had stuck.  He simply had no other name that we were aware of.  What do you think?”
“Fine,” Kate said, closing her eyes.
“Sleep if you can, darling.  The boy and I are going back up on deck – I’ll see if I can make a sailor out of him.”
The door closed.
“Benji,” she said.  The name was bitter in her mouth. 
The name was the least of it.  There was the shock of learning about Frank’s vulgar liaison –  and then – after the tragedy – suddenly having his child to raise. 
But he was just an innocent child, she reminded herself. None of this was his doing.  He couldn’t help it that he had a mother so cruel as to butcher herself before his very eyes. 
            The American consul Sharpless—who had insisted that the boy was Frank’s – told them that as a mixed-race child he would be unadoptable.  He would live on the streets,  prey to disease and criminals. Frank  said he would feel guilty all his life, if he left the child to such a fate.  He begged Kate to forgive him, and to consider what he knew to be a heavy burden.
            She had gone to the Oura church to pray about her decision and afterwards went to the cliff where the 17th century Christians had leapt to their deaths rather than abandon their faith. It had been a blazingly beautiful day, the sea a smooth blue cover above their graves.  If  those souls could give up their lives for Christ, she could make the modest sacrifice of finding room for this boy in their home. 
            Frank had covered her face with kisses. She would be glad, he predicted, that they would have help on the farm until they  had boys of their own.
            Kate shifted from her back to her side and stared down at the steel floor.  She felt as queasy now as she had that month of her pregnancy, not long after they were married.  When she lost the baby Frank had been so dashed it was almost unbearable, and there had been no sign of another these two years.  Maybe her sickness now was not just from the motion of the boat.  Perhaps she was with child again.   
            The ship rose, a high, slow climb, then fell with a shudder. Their large trunk slid across  the floor, Frank’s shaving mug fell from the sink and shattered.
            She thought of that woman lying in blood, and the child beside her, restrained by the maid from throwing himself on his mother’s body. God was calling on her to enlarge her soul.  She would learn to care for him as if he were one of her own children, and she would help him to forget. 
Galena Gazette,   June 1, 1895
Plum River, Illinois.    There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community as Lt. Frank Pinkerton (son of Elmer who died last year) and his wife Katherine have settled in at the Pinkerton farm.  As if the presence of the refined Mrs. Pinkerton – the daughter of  Galena’s late missionary pastor Reverend Timothy  Lewis--  were not excitement enough, this Christian couple have brought with them, to rear as nearly their own as possible, a Japanese orphan boy rescued from the lowly society of Nagasky Japan. In his sermon Sunday last, Pastor Marshall Pollock called upon his flock to excite in their breasts all the human compassion of which they are capable, and to extend every possible kindness and instruction to this heathen child in our midst.
                 Benji was given  new clothes, scratchy pants that ended below his knees and a shirt with a long row of  white circles he was supposed to  push through holes. There were stiff heavy shoes to wear outside and inside. When he tried to leave them by the door everyone laughed and Blue Eyes made him put them back on.  
            Papa-san said this was a farm where they grew good things to eat but the food made Benji sick, the big pieces of red meat, the hill of white mush with a thick brown soup running over the top, and the little green things that ran away from the stabber he had to use. Blue Eyes said he couldn’t use the chopsticks he found in his trunk.
            Outside everything was too wide and stretched looking. When he saw the river he understood that he was in the kappa world. He had been bad and the kappas had brought him here.  He had never seen a kappa but Suzuki had said they were green with long arms and a shallow dish of water on their heads.  Unless you knocked the water out of the dish they were very strong.  Once when he swam in a river  in Nagasaki and went down deep to get a rock, Suzuki told him never to do that again.  The kappas hid in rivers and they could reach inside your bottom and pull your liver out.  Even if you weren’t in the river but you were naughty the kappas could take you there when you were asleep and carry you under the water to their world.  Two times he hadn’t come when Mama called and once he had kept a frog in his bed to scare her.  Then Mama was lying on the floor with her eyes shut and she wouldn’t wake up.  Suzuki said she would never wake up, that  the red on the floor was her life coming out of her  breast but he would see her again some day  in the Land of Spirits and he should pray for her. Sohe was a bad boy. Suzuki said it was an accident, but he knew the kappas had killed her because he was bad and then they had brought him to this place. That’s why this strange talking sounded like voices through water.
            He squatted near the river and looked down at it to see the kappas.  The water ran fast and carried sticks and leaves and once he saw a fish.  There was a long-legged bug on top of the water. He poked it with a stick. It could be a kappa in another form.  Animals could take other shapes and fool you, Suzuki said, foxes and badgers and birds.
            He liked the funny birds here. Chicken. Papa-san made him say it in kappa language.  It was his job to feed the chickens inside their fence.  He put corn in the shallow dish and scattered it around him in a circle for them to pick up.  They made funny noises, especially the one with the red mushrooms on his head, and he felt sorry for them because of their ugly feet they couldn’t help and the loose necks that went back and forth too much.  Their feathers were pretty but hard.  Papa said some day they would have babies, little soft ones, and he could have one for his own.  He always gave the chickens clean water after their food and Papa said he was a good boy to take care of them so well.
            In Benji’s room was a bed where he was supposed to stay all night. He was not to pull off the covers and sleep on the floor, but he did, when he could stay awake until the house was quiet.  The floor was hard beneath the sheets and thin quilts, but as he fell asleep there, holding the string ball Mama had made for him, it was easier to pretend that he was at home and that when morning came  Mama’s voice would wake him.  Breakfast would be waiting at the low table that looked out on the garden and there would be miso soup with bits of mushroom he had  helped Mama find in the woods, and rice with dried seaweed. This would be in the Land of  the Spirits, but it would look just like home.
            One night when he had a bad dream he pulled his trunk out from under the bed. It was dark but his hands knew where everything was.  The ivory chopsticks with the foxes on the end, the lacquer rice bowl, the kite with the samurai on it.  At the bottom was his winter sleeping kimono.  He took off the itchy nightshirt and put on the kimono and lay back down. The kimono was soft with thick padding and the silk lining reminded him of Mama. His skin began to feel warm and when he went to sleep this time he had a good dream. He woke up in the morning  before Blue Eyes came in and put everything back into the chest except the kimono, which he folded and slid beneath the mattress where it would be easy to find in the dark.
            They went once a week to a place Papa-san said was a temple but it was not quiet and didn’t smell like incense.  He had to sit on a hard bench with a lot of other people around and the girls in front of him turned and looked quick at him and laughed. On the platform was a big ugly man who talked loud and waved his arms around until his face was red. Papa said this was the priest, who was very interested in Benji.  Some day the priest would come to eat with them and Benji should learn many new words so he could talk to him. Benji said he didn’t want to learn kappa language but Papa frowned and said he must so he could get along in this world.

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