Marjorie Agosín’s I Lived on Butterfly Hill is a middle grade novel set in the early 1970’s. E.M. O’Connor translated it from the Spanish. Butterfly Hill follows the journeys of Celeste Marconi as she deals with life under the military dictatorship. When Celeste’s parents are labeled “subversives” for their medical work with the poor and their support for Presidente Alarcón (a fictional parallel to the historical Salvador Allende), they must go into hiding, leaving Celeste with her nana and abuela in their house in Valparaíso. Soon, as the country becomes more oppressive and even some of her classmates turn against her, Celeste must flee to live with her aunt in Maine.
My spouse is Chilean and I lived in Chile for two years, so I read Agosín’s account of this dark period in Chilean history with interest. Her descriptions of Valparaíso, especially, stuck with me: the houses that ramble up the hillsides, the colors, the smells (Rain! Sopaipillas! Cilantro! Empanadas!), and the way the ocean forms the backdrop of it all. As kidlit writers, we have a lot to learn from Agosín’s sad, hopeful, lovely book. Here are three things we can take away from I Lived on Butterfly Hill.
1. You have your creative license. Use it.
The first night I was reading this novel, I had a lot of questions for my spouse.
“Alarcón? Who’s Alarcón? I was sure this was about Allende…”
After spending some time on Wikipedia, we confirmed there was no Alarcón. And as the book progresses, Agosín continues to veer from history: the dictatorship lasts three years instead of 17; the General (clearly based on Pinochet, but never named) dies of a cold, rather than leaving office after a referendum. A female president, Mónica Espinoza, is elected shortly after––perhaps a Michelle Bachelet figure, though Bachelet didn’t become president of Chile until 2006.
Tellingly, the only real historical figures here are poets: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.
The book becomes a strange, vivid mixture of authentic history and artistic license, of fictional characters and painfully real tragedies. At first, I felt a bit cheated. I wanted to see Chilean history, in all its messiness, and perhaps learn something new along the way. But Agosín’s decision to leave the names out of it––names that carry so many connotations, so much weight––allows her to simply tell the story.
Many readers have mentioned wanting a historical endnote, explaining who the figures really are, which things are true and which are fictional. For a Chilean audience, however, Celeste’s story becomes a powerful opportunity to reconsider a tense, tragic point in national history, without getting caught up in the politics of it all. We can’t be distracted by our preconceived notions of Allende or Pinochet, or which side of history we’ve been taught to stand on. This isn’t a book about Communists or Chicago Boys. Simply, it’s a book about Celeste, and her life during a scary, confusing time.
2. It’s not how long your book is––it’s how long it feels.
At 455 pages, this book is long, especially for a middle grade audience. But it flies by with the speed of a book half its size. Agosín’s sparse, poetic chapters, with an extra lift from gorgeous illustrations by Lee White, move along quickly as seasons change and political powers shift. The novel covers a lot of ground––emotional, historical, and geographical––in a short time. All the while, a few terrible, suspenseful questions keep the tension high: Where are Celeste’s parents? Will Celeste adjust to her new life in Maine? Will Chile ever be peaceful again?
Agosín’s novel reminds us that it’s not about word count––it’s about pacing. The felt experience of a book can’t be measured by its pages, and length guidelines aren’t law. Here, Agosín tells the story that needs to be told, and it reads beautifully, with just the right number of words.
3. Food is the universal language.
Returning to those sopaipillas and that cilantro! Of course I have a special place for Chilean treats in my heart, but anyone can appreciate the comfort food you eat on a rainy day, those delicacies you buy from the streetcart, that favorite dish your grandma used to make to help you feel like everything was going to be okay.
When Celeste is far away from her home and living in Maine, she stays with an aunt who doesn’t know how to cook, and feeds her crunchy cereal in the morning. This adds to Celeste’s isolation––but as she grows accustomed to it, we see her adaptability, and her resilience.
By including so many details about food––its smell and texture, its relationship to happiness and sadness and family and celebration––Agosín makes her book rich with cultural and sensory detail, and helps the characters and the setting come alive.
(Now I really, really want to go to Valparaíso…)
Want to chat more about I Lived on Butterfly Hill? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.