I Lived on Butterfly Hill
Atheneum, 2014 454 pgs.
Eleven-year-old Celeste has an idyllic life. She resides with her doctor parents, grandmother, and beloved nanny and spends her time at school, hanging out with friends, writing, and dreaming. Her house sits at the top of a hill in a small town in Chile and she loves to sit on her roof and watch the boats and cranes. Suddenly everything changes. The recently elected socialist president is overthrown in a coup d'etat and a conservative dictator has stepped into power. Celeste's parents, who ran a clinic and are committed to helping the poor, are in danger and must go into hiding. Children are disappearing from school each day, including one of Celeste's best friends. Chile is no longer a safe or happy place to be. Celeste is sent to live with an aunt in Maine. Maine is a culture shock; from the harsh weather to speaking in a new language. Celeste feels like an outsider and struggles to make friends. The only other ESL student in her class is a girl from Korea and the two eventually become friends. Unfortunately, the girl and her family disappear, leaving Celeste more isolated than ever. After two years Celeste has mastered English and is starting to fit in when word arrives that the dictator has been overthrown and it is safe to come home. Celeste returns to her home in Chile to find her grandmother much aged, her parents still in hiding in different secret locations, and friends changed with some still missing. She receives clues as to the whereabouts of her father and sets off to rescue him. Eventually, the family is reunited, though much worse for wear. A new president is elected and Celeste and her family and friends begin to pick up the pieces of their lives and live again in a reborn Chile, filled with hope and promise.
Agosin has penned quite a book. Everything happens to Celeste. The 454 pages could have been split up into a trilogy and are in three distinct parts: Chile before and during the take-over/Celeste in Maine/Chile after Celeste's return. Even though the book was long, I never became bored. Agosin is very consistent with portraying Celeste's voice. Celeste is a likable and brave girl who experiences much character growth throughout the book. The reader will root for her, sympathize with her plight, and enjoy spending time with her. This book is based on the author's own experiences during Chile's political take-over in 1973, when she. herself, fled to the United States. It is historical fiction and the author describes the place and time as only one who lived through it could. Unfortunately, she ends the dictatorship after only two years, when in reality it went on through 1990. Even though a work is historical fiction, I think that the historic details should be as accurate as possible. The fiction should come from the story part, not the historic part. Maybe Agosin wanted Celeste to have closure: to return to Chile and pull her life back together. Or maybe she wanted to reader to experience the aftermath of the dictatorship, while still keeping it through the eyes of a child narrator. Back in Chile Celeste has a very dangerous adventure rescuing her father from his place of hiding, which felt out of place among the rest of the story. I think maybe the book could have ended with Celeste in Maine with an afterwards of what really happened during the coup and the aftermath. At any rate, Agosin presents a great work about a little known time in history, which has never been, as far as I can tell, written about for young people. The book will appeal more to girls, but boys would like it too if they gave it a try. I love that it features a South American culture, shows the struggles of children arriving to America as refugees, and it has a great moral compass. I also like that Celeste's grandmother escaped the Holocaust to Chile and the family is Jewish, although we never see them actively practicing their religion. All in all, this is a highly readable book that will expand the minds of young readers not afraid of thick volumes.