As in the opera, the novel opens with Cio-Cio waiting for Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton's return to Japan, convinced that he will in fact come back to her and the son he never knew he had. But when he does return, it is with an American wife. Butterfly commits hairi-kiri out of love and desperation and Pinkerton and his devout wife Kate are left to decide young biracial Benji's fate. They choose to take him back to Illinois with them to their farm but instead of Pinkerton's claiming paternity, they say that Benji is an orphan whom they've adopted as is their Christian duty.
Life is not easy on the farm. Pinkerton never planned to work on it, Kate wasn't raised as a farm wife, and Benji is desperately afloat in a culture he doesn't trust with people he doesn't know and who are having a hard time caring for him emotionally given the way he remains a constant reminder of Butterfly for both Pinkertons. Without the love and caring at home to build his sense of worth, the petty racism he encounters daily in the small town is terribly isolating. Only a few people treat him as a full, intelligent human being. And so he never stops dreaming of leaving Illinois and going back to Japan to find his mother's family. When the secret of his paternity leaks out in this provincial and small-minded town, the repercussions tear the Pinkerton family apart and Benji runs away to make his long desired journey back to Japan.
The historical detail and accuracy of attitudes and beliefs are fantastic here. Davis-Gardner really captures the difficulty of being bi-racial at the turn of the 20th century, not only in the US but also in Japan. The hardship of working on a farm over tough years is realistically depicted. The Japanese areas of larger American cities are carefully detailed and brought to life. The casual racism of the time threads through Benji's everyday life just exactly as it would have, touching and soiling so much.
In Benji, Davis-Gardner has created a sad, woeful character whose search for identity and acceptance is all external until he realizes that only by finding himself within will he finally be at ease in a world not amenable to people like him. Pinkerton is a fairly loathesome character and just as in the opera, the reader wonders what both Cio-Cio and then Kate could ever have seen in the man. Kate is very buttoned-up and constrained and she tries her hardest but she ultimately finds herself unable to rise above the prejudices of the day and her eventual succumbing to deep depression is a not unexpected fate for her. Pinkerton's mother, while gruff, is one of the more sympathetic characters as is Keast, the veterinarian who takes a real and heartfelt interest in Benji.
The plot, starting with the end of the opera and growing from there, has a desultory feel to it, unspooling slowly toward a series of surprising climaxes. Benji's life in American with his father and stepmother draws out far longer than his adult life in Japan although the latter is equally as, or even more, interesting than his farm years. Just as Benji left them behind, Frank and Kate's stories are wrapped up tidily and fairly quickly in the end, the more interesting secondary characters are briefly mentioned, and the focus is solely on Benji again and the losses he's chosen to accept by only being one half of his heritage. A thoughtful and appealing tale that not only takes inspiration from the opera but also cleverly incorporates it into the tale itself, this search for self was a delight to read.
For more information about Angela Davis-Gardner and the book visit her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.