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Life as a homeless teen inspires ‘The Butterfly Girl’

By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

Rene Denfeld’s new novel “The Butterfly Girl” is a heartbreaking story of children living on the streets of Portland who face some of the worst kinds of predatory crimes, including sexual abuse, trafficking and kidnapping.

So it’s a bit of a shock to realize that the novel’s main character is inspired by Denfeld’s own difficult childhood, including her experience as a homeless teenager in Portland in the 1980s.

But there’s a flip side to the story: “The Butterfly Girl” marks the return of fictional investigator Naomi Cottle, another of Denfeld’s alter egos introduced in her previous novel, “The Child Finder.”

Naomi, who is based in part on Denfeld’s years as a defense investigator, shows how someone who has experienced severe trauma can heal and help others with their own recovery.

Denfeld, author of three novels, brings her story to the Northwest Passages Book Club on Oct. 23 with an event at the Bing Crosby Theater. (For tickets, visit

“The Butterfly Girl” is a thriller that tells two parallel stories of children abused and exploited. Naomi, known for her ability to find lost children, has vowed not to rest until she finds the younger sister she had to leave behind when she escaped from captivity.

She soon encounters 12-year-old Celia, who ran away from home to escape an abusive stepfather. Celia, too, is hoping to save a younger sister, but she finds herself in danger at every turn.

In writing the novel, Denfeld aims to bring attention to the growing problem of children living without shelter, which she believes is often overlooked in the general conversation about homelessness.

“I’m frustrated and confused by that because these are one of our most vulnerable populations,” Denfeld said. “I think people get very overwhelmed by the problem. People feel helpless, and I think there is a degree of victim blaming that goes on even for children who end up on the streets.”

Denfeld is not one to sit idly by in the face of difficult problems. Beginning in her mid-20s, not long after she pulled herself out of poverty and homelessness, Denfeld began working as a therapeutic foster mother, ultimately adopting three children and caring for more.

That experience, too, is reflected in “The Butterfly Girl,” where foster parents play a key role in helping children get off the street and begin to heal from their trauma.

“I love being a foster parent,” Denfeld said. “A lot of people will say to me that I’m very brave. I think it’s the assumption that all these kids are little drug-addicted criminals, when the truth is most of them are just very traumatized. That in and of itself does take a lot of work. But they’re not hopeless – they’re children.”

Celia deals with her abuse and nearly unbearable living conditions by escaping into the butterfly-filled world of her mind, much as Denfeld used her imagination to survive when she was a lonely teenager suffering from what she has described as “poverty, molestation and abuse.”

Celia finds a refuge in Portland’s downtown Central Library, and a librarian offers her scrap paper, butterfly books and kindness. Denfeld said libraries have played a huge role in her life starting from when she was living on the street spending most of her waking hours in the downtown facility.

Although she never completed high school, much less college, Denfeld now teaches other writers from marginalized backgrounds and jokes that she completed her free Master of Fine Arts at the public library.

“For a long time, I felt kind of ashamed of my past,” she said. “Our culture values fancy degrees and a certain sort of path, and I felt embarrassed about where I came from. It wasn’t until I started writing fiction that I realized my experience is a strength.”

Denfeld began writing seriously as a teenager, when she bought a typewriter at a thrift store and began crafting poems, which she would leave scattered around Portland at bus stops.

Later she began working as a freelance journalist before moving on to become an investigator for the public defender’s office. “But I always loved writing poetry, loved writing fiction,” she said. “I always wanted to be a novelist.”

Denfeld was in her mid-40s when she published her first novel, “The Enchanted,” the story of a prison investigator working to get a man off death row narrated by the inmate.

Denfeld has said the idea came to her as she was leaving the state penitentiary in Salem, where Oregon’s death row inmates were housed, and she heard a voice say, “This is an enchanted place.”

Now that the death penalty has essentially been eliminated in Oregon, Denfeld, who specialized in death-penalty cases, has found herself suddenly but happily out of work. And with only one teenager left at home, Denfeld has a lot of time on her hands.

“I literally for years would just nap at night,” she said. Her schedule included getting up before dawn, making breakfast, getting her kids to school, working all day, getting everyone to their appointments, making dinner and then staying up all night writing. “Looking back, it was just intense, but I feel very lucky to have had the experience.”

Now she’s considering her next novel, which she says likely will be a standalone book rather than another chapter in the story of the Child Finder. It’s a good bet she’ll continue shining a light on the hidden margins of society.

“I’m very much of the belief that the more stories, the better the richness of life, and we can find those common threads of humanity that tie us all together,” she said.

Martin Wolk is a writer and editor who enjoys contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications. He covers books for The Spokesman-Review and other publications.

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