By Leslie Lindsay
Gorgeous companion to THE CHILD FINDER, this book stands on its own and is as stunning as harrowing.
I loved Rene Denfeld’s previous book, THE CHILD FINDER (2017), but THE BUTTERFLY GIRL (October 1 2019) absolutely glimmers. It’s a gripping account of underprivileged, disadvantaged children and their circumstances .
Naomi is an exceptional young woman who has a knack for finding missing or displaced children. Now, we continue with her story as she is wracked with the guilt and compulsion of finding her own sister, who disappeared years ago when both girls were in captivity. Naomi escaped, but her sister didn’t.
Naomi has no picture, no idea even what her sister’s name is. She can’t remember; it was that traumatic. And she was just a kid when it all happened. All Naomi has is a vague sense of a strawberry field at night, black dirt rimming her nails, and bare feet. She ran for her life.
Now, nearly twenty years later, Naomi is in Portland Oregon, amidst skid row, where scores of homeless children wander in and out of shelters, abandoned paint factories, and behind Dumpsters. They’re looking for love, for money, for acceptance, for companionship. They want to be heard. When Naomi notices girls have been going missing for months, and pulled from the river like dead fish, she must get involved–but she doesn’t want to. Not really. Not until she finds her sister.
That’s when she meets 12-year-old Celia, who is running from her abusive stepfather and IV drug addict mother. Celia has a vivid imagination and sharp wit, but she can’t seem to escape her fate on the street.
The writing is lush and poetic, every sentence absolutely sings. I read with deep awe and fascination, and also my heart in my throat. This is a bleak and chilling story, but also hopeful. Denfeld does a fabulous job of weaving several story lines together in a cohesive whole; her experiences as a public defender investigator absolutely shine.
There is so much honesty and authenticity in these pages, but also haunting and lyrical prose. It’s a cry for action for the disadvantaged, but also a literary mystery. THE BUTTERFLY GIRL will leave you breathless.
“A heart-breaking, finger gnawing and yet ultimately hopeful novel by the amazing Rene Denfeld.”
—Margaret Atwood via twitter
Keep in mind, THE BUTTERFLY GIRL does mention some darker sides of life, including human (child) trafficking, child homelessness, pedophiles/rape, although the language used helps soften and distort the abuse.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Rene Denfeld back to the author interview series.
Rene, oh, this book! I read it with my heart in my throat and nearly every chapter ended with a sigh. We first ‘met’ Naomi in THE CHILD FINDER (2017), but THE BUTTERFLY GIRL isn’t exactly a sequel, more of a companion. Can you tell more about your seeds of inspiration?
I am so honored to be here! Thank you for reading THE BUTTERFLY GIRL. This is a deeply personal book for me, as I experienced a lot of trauma as a child. It’s why I went into work helping others, doing public defense work, and also why I became a foster mother. And it definitely informed my writing. It brings the beauty of life into sharp relief.
I am reading and I feel so connected and protective of Celia, the 12-year old homeless girl in the story. Probably because I have a sweet 12-year old daughter myself, with blue eyes and clear skin and a smattering of freckles. I couldn’t imagine her on the streets. But it happens. All the time. What is your connection to Celia?
A lot of my experiences went into Celia. When I was a girl I lived on the streets. Like Celia I dealt with predators. I slept under overpasses. I dug through trash cans for food. It was a stark, terrible life, and yet, it had moments of joy. I made deep friendships with other street kids. I saw the worst life had to offer, and I also experienced some of the best. I’ll never forget waking up on cold streets and watching the sun rise over the city. I spent a lot of time in the downtown library, escaping into books. I dreamed someday I might be a writer. I wanted to tell stories that helped others.
Years ago, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my uncle was homeless. He came from a loving home, but didn’t want to be found. He left. No one knew where he went. My father and grandparents found him—eventually, nearly a decade later—on the streets of Denver. We all know there are contributing factors to homelessness in adults: addiction, mental illness. But children. That’s a slightly different story. Can you talk about that, please?
Right now we are seeing a huge surge in homelessness. Hidden in that is a massive population of children. When you see those tent cities or large groups of homeless, children live there too. It’s a scary reality. I think we want to blame the homeless for their plight. But a lot of kids end up homeless because of abuse and molestation at home. Addictions in their parents are another big cause, as if poverty. We look the other way about street kids. We let them be victimized and preyed upon, and sometimes we even blame them, make them out to be criminals. A lot of kids on the streets are from the foster system, too. They run away from bad foster homes and no one bothers to try and find them. There are thousands of homeless children in this country.
And girls especially. What might we know—or not know—about girls and homelessness?
When I was on the streets the trafficking was right out in the open. Now its has gone underground. Because of the internet girls can be trafficked out of cheap hotel rooms. But it still happens. Girls are especially at risk when homeless, but boys are at risk too. All children are vulnerable on the streets. They are not just being trafficked, they are missing critical pieces of their education and development. Instead of feeling loved and safe they are being brutalized. It is an absolutely harrowing life. I had many friends on the streets who were murdered or died of overdoses. One threw himself off a freeway ramp after being raped.
What I love about Celia, and also Sarah, is that they have a special kind of resilience –their own unique set of coping skills. Celia has a vivid imagination; she loves butterflies and Sarah has Little Self. Can you talk about the role of coping and imagination and what saved you?
I believe imagination is a radical act. It is a proclamation of hope. Imagination saved my life. I learned to escape through books and story, and often spent more time in a fantasy world than in real life. It is how I learned to cope. It is a healthy coping mechanism. An imagination is something no one can take from you. It’s not just an escape. It’s a way of re-envisioning your future. I used to imagine someone was going to come save me. After awhile, that imagination allowed me to see I could save myself. I remember reading the book The Woman Warrior as a homeless child, sitting in the downtown library, and imagining I could be a warrior too.
I understand that when you were younger, you wrote poems on a broken typewriter and left them for homeless kids to find. This reminds me of Celia and her butterfly drawings. Was it a call for help? Just a way to escape? A combination? Something else?
It felt more like a magical thing to do, like sending messages in a bottle. That’s what writing is, isn’t it? We send messages in a bottle out into the world, and hope they find someone. Now I get to write books that do the same. I may never know who my books reach, and how they might help. But they are out there. We all deserve to have someone send us a message in a bottle. I think it is profoundly healing to take what has happened to you and use it to reach out and help someone else.
When I closed this book for the last time, I said to my husband, “I want to be a foster parent. I want to help that guy who sits at the intersection with a cardboard sign.” I think THE BUTTERFLY GIRL is going to be a call for action for many. What might you suggest?
I love being a foster adoptive parent. Hands down it is the best choice I ever made. I’ve been doing it for over twenty years now. It’s not easy! But I highly suggest that people consider it, or other ways to help children. Not everyone can be a foster parent. But perhaps they can consider volunteering as a CASA. That’s a volunteer who works with the court system to oversee a foster child’s case. They get to know the kid, and make sure their rights and needs are being met. There’s a lot of volunteer activity out there. You can also consider volunteering in shelters, or youth outreach. There is so much we can do to help. We all have the power to change lives.
Rene, this has been amazing. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Is there anything you’d like to add, that maybe I should have asked?
Just that I am so honored to be here, speaking to you. I’m very lucky. I am thankful every day. Life is beautiful and full of poetry and promise, despite all the sorrow. You and your readers are part of that beauty and promise! So thank you.
For more information, to connect with Rene Denfeld via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE BUTTERFLY GIRL, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rene is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder, The Enchanted, and The Butterfly Girl. Her literary thrillers explore themes of survival, resiliency and redemption, and have earned starred Library Journal reviews, glowing NYTBR reviews, and Indie Next picks. Margaret Atwood has proclaimed her work “astonishing” and The Butterfly Girl a “heartbreaking, finger-gnawing, yet ultimately hopeful novel.”
Rene was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases, including death row exonerations and helping rape trafficking victims escape their captors. In addition to her advocacy work, Rene has been a foster adoptive parent for twenty years. She was awarded the Break The Silence Award in Washington, DC for her social justice work, and was named a 2017 hero of the year by the New York Times.
The child of a difficult history herself, Rene is an accomplished speaker who loves connecting with others. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care as well as other foster kids.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams/HarperCollins and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow me on Instagram @leslielindsay1]