Young girls are being murdered in Portland. Almost nobody cares. Almost nobody cares because these kids are, for the most part, nameless throwaways, having run from intolerable conditions into an intolerable condition. They live in the moment. When there’s food in the dumpster, that’s a good moment. When the dumpster is locked, that’s a bad moment. When they are able to band together to ward off danger, that’s a good moment. When they’re caught by surprise … you get the picture.
Once in a while, we come across a novel so true we know the author has been there; has highlighted those tiny, exact details that only an intimate could include.
That’s “The Butterfly Girl.”
That’s Rene Denfeld.
“The Butterfly Girl” is a novel for every literary aficionado of that pitch-perfect whodunit with characters so true, you really care whodunit.
Ain’t givin’ you no spoilers here other than it’s a story told through the eyes of two characters, Naomi and Celia – one an adult, the other a child – who have experienced the perils of the homeless on the streets of Portland during a particularly horrible stretch and still struggle not only to stand up but also to fight back.
On Oct. 23, I’ll have the pleasure of interviewing Rene Denfeld at the Bing Crosby Theater for The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club. Her novel, her own story and the interview itself are personal to me. In my many years as a therapist and chairperson of Spokane’s original child protection team, I have seen up close so many of those kids forced to escape to nowhere. I’ve seen kids who pieced together astonishing coping mechanisms, resilient kids who just kept rising up … along with far too many others who were crushed. All of them were scarred by the experience of trauma coupled with invisibility.
“The Butterfly Girl” casts those truths under a glaring light.
The issue of homelessness here in Spokane has been brought to the fore in our current mayoral race, the fulcrum of the argument balancing on how to deal with the problem.
Denfeld tells us, through her own personal story, and through her novel, that it is up to us as a community/society to see these human beings and to understand that prevention has to be our attack strategy.
Homelessness, to a great degree, is a symptom of human indecency, the indecency of social apathy.
It’s easy to make ourselves believe, from the security of four walls, heat, light and nutritional sustenance, that under their same circumstances we would act more “responsibly” when in fact it’s pretty cold-hearted to ask human beings who have no boots to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
In “The Water Dancer,” Ta-Nehisi Coates shows us how important it was for slave owners to not know their slaves in order that they could buy and sell them, rip their families apart, punish with torture and even death; and to repeat a narrative allowing other rich white people to do the same.
In “The Butterfly Girl,” Denfeld shows us that same truth as it applies to the homeless. If we can keep them nameless, and at a distance, ignore in our souls what we know are the damages inflicted by the hammers of hunger and fear and hopelessness … well then, we can just call them a problem. Except, Denfeld tricks us. She gives them names. Naomi and Celia. And Sarah. And Rich. And Stoner.
Read the book.
Chris Crutcher is an award-winning author of young adult fiction and family therapist living in Spokane.