Book Review: The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld
By Thomas PluckOctober 1, 2019
The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld follows Naomi, an investigator searching for her missing sister in a city where young, homeless girls have been going missing and turning up dead.
A year ago, Naomi, the investigator with an uncanny ability for finding missing children, made a promise that she would not take another case until she finds the younger sister who has been missing for years. Naomi has no picture, not even a name. All she has is a vague memory of a strawberry field at night, black dirt under her bare feet as she ran for her life.
Writing about child abuse is difficult without descending into cynicism, avoiding salaciousness, or making the stupid and offensive mistake to assume that abuse gives victims ninja superpowers, as one popular thriller writer has. Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder is one of the best novels involving child abuse that I’ve ever read, and as someone who has written on the subject and worked with survivors, I don’t judge these books lightly. While murder is just as an egregious a crime, its victims can’t be murdered a second time by a culture that blames them for their assaults, or tries to assuage them by saying their ordeal “made them stronger.” Bad books about child abuse can hurt people, so they deserve to be judged.
Naomi knew it wasn’t callousness or indifference. The Feds just didn’t have the right experience. They wanted to think men like Nick Floyd were smarter, more brilliant and cunning and unique than themselves. They didn’t want to accept that the reason so many crimes against women and children went unsolved was not because a handful of brilliant sociopaths were outwitting the police at every turn. It was because people let such crimes happen.
The Butterfly Girl is powerful a read as Denfeld’s masterpiece The Child Finder, and makes us face the children of the city streets, the ones whose abuse we as a society tolerate and ignore. When I volunteered for The National Association to Protect Children, I learned several uncomfortable truths: most children are abused by people within their parents’ circle of trust, or the parents themselves; most will not be believed or saved; those who do tell a mandatory reporter like a teacher are often faced with “family court” which wants to keep families together, even if one member rapes the others; and our hatred of the homeless overcomes our sympathy for raped children, as many abused children live on the streets, are raped by johns to survive, and scumbags like a former acquaintance call this a “lifestyle choice,” and our hatred of sex workers also eclipses any feigned sympathy we have for raped children.
That was probably tough for you to read. The good news is that Rene Denfeld is much better at writing about this subject that I am, and her books show us how things work and how we are culpable without slicing us open with a rusty razor. She gives us characters to care about, like Naomi Cottle, the child finder, who escaped abduction as a little girl but left her littler sister behind, and has punished herself for it every since; her husband Jerome, a wounded veteran and member of the Kalapuya tribe of Oregon, where the book is set, and a budding investigator himself; and Celia, a twelve-year-old girl living on the streets to escape her abusive stepfather, who she reported, but was forced to live with after the courts deemed her a liar.
Outside, the rain had started again. Rich was waiting for her, so hungry, too, that he felt faint. Together they walked down to skid row, looking for food and their friends. Celia wondered if butterflies savor time more because they know they will die soon. Then again, Celia knew she might die soon, too, and that didn’t make her enjoy life more.
Denfeld compels us with her knowledge of people who’ve lived on the street. Celia is no fantasy. She lives rough, she and her friends are smart but still kids, in danger, prey for jocks who want to beat on the homeless that our society considers subhuman, and johns who want to rape children for money. Her writing sparkles with truth and beauty, truly diamonds in the gutter, to embrace the noir stereotype. The story moves along slowly at first as we get the bigger picture, that someone is taking street kids, keeping them alive for a while, and then dumping their bodies in the river. Naomi knows this, unlike the Feds, because she experienced it, and she sees a clue others have missed. She also sees Celia, who resents her cleanliness, even if Naomi never condescends. Neither are perfect. Naomi trains in a real fight gym and fights dirty, like women fighters I’ve trained with for self-defense. Her description of the gym is better than Fat City, by someone who’s been there and loves the punishment, perhaps because they think they deserve it:
She found the local gym on the east side of town, near a set of train tracks and a disreputable strip of car lots. The smell was intoxicating: sweat, old leather, and the musky scent of fear. To Naomi, new fear smelled bright and hard, but fear already spent smelled entirely different, like an animal resting.
I ached for Naomi to get a chance to use her fighting skills more often than she does, but this story is not wish fulfillment, and it is a true mystery and investigation, that takes us deep into the towns dependent on migrant labor and how they abuse their power over them. Naomi’s story merges with a horrific tale of Native and migrant children hunted by a predator in plain sight… who is still out there, hunting new victims. I enjoyed the mystery and at times it’s as compelling as classics such as Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, but also feels rushed and a little compelled to tie things up a bit too neatly, unlike the first book, which was content to leave us with a few questions.
This isn’t In the Woods by Tana French, that polarizing missing children mystery, but nor is it a by-the-numbers thriller that leaves us with a pretty bow and no ligature marks. I wasn’t fully satisfied with the ending, as I felt it was too insistent on that elusive “closure” that we’re told exists, but the book as a whole is another enjoyable marvel from Denfeld, who writes survivors like no other. Few books are as good as The Child Finder; this is a worthy sequel that deepens our relationship with Naomi and Jerome, and perhaps opens doors to a new chapter that will be as exciting as what came before. I’ll be watching for that book, too.