Meet Celeste Marconi. She is eleven years old. She reads Pablo Neruda. She says good morning to the pelicans that fly by her house. Then, warships start docking on her hometown, Valparaiso, classmates start disappearing without reason, her parents leave, and the bottom of the world falls out from beneath her feet.
Few children’s books are brave enough to take on the theme of loss, but this book does it – and does it well. Celeste’s parents leave Chile to save their lives as they were prominent supporters of the old President, before the government was overthrown by a military dictator, and Celeste feels real loss for the first time in her life. It is especially haunting to hear Celeste’s fearful thoughts in her school, once a place filled with laughter and joy, but now overseen by a blank-faced military officer between four white, joyless walls. Before long, Celeste is shipped to the States to live with her aunt to ‘protect’ her, but Celeste can only miss her friends, her home on Butterfly Hill, and her parents. When Celeste returns from Juliette Cove a few years later, the dictatorship has ended, but her parents have not returned home. The novel then follows Celeste’s journey to trace her parents’ footsteps and bring them home.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill expertly weaves the bone-chilling horrors of the Chilean dictatorship and a young girl’s naive narration into a stunning piece touching on war, loss, friendship, and growing up. Her novel has wonderful imagery of hope and love, and a beautiful profusion of vocabulary too. Not only does Celeste hold on to her dreams even throughout the dictatorship, she is extremely intelligent and sharp, and seems to have more experience than her eleven years. The book explores what one will do for family, as well as a first-person narrative about growing up through difficult times. As a person who loves historical fiction to the ends of time and back, my review of this book may be the slightest bit biased, but nonetheless, the book is an amazing read.
Chua Wei Ting