I first read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in third grade. I distinctly remember thinking it was a FAT book. Child view of the world right there. Imagine if I’d seen a copy of Moby Dick! I don’t know how I got my hands on that book — my teacher? a sibling? — but I’m certain I read it solely for the accomplishment, because my seven-year-old mind didn’t really grasp the moral weight of it.
Yes, I got that the Frank family were hiding from persecution. But the scale of the Holocaust and the testament to the human spirit that Anne’s voice became?
I was a little too busy pretending I was an alien from a planet called Orton for that. (True story.)
Three years later, however, several classmates and I plowed through stacks of books set during the Holocaust. Some of the stories were true, like The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender. Many were fictionalized based on real events. I’ve forgotten most of the titles, but I remember snippets of other details. Like kids hiding at a school when Nazis came (a Google search says that’s from a book called Twenty and Ten), or a litle girl peering through a a hole in a suffocating cattle car on the way to a concentration camp.
We may have talked about the Holocaust in class, but I honestly don’t remember that. Memoirs and fiction were the primary way I learned about concentration camps and Jewish ghettos and genocide.
Now that I’m older, though, I also know about mass atrocities in other places throughout the world and modern times. And I wonder why I didn’t read books told from the perspective of kids living through, say, the Trail of Tears, or Argentina’s Dirty War?
Enter I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín. I stumbled upon this middle-grade novel, published by Simon & Schuster in March, last week at the library. What a find!
Eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi narrates this story set in Valparaíso, Chile. It begins with her happy life on Butterfly Hill (Cerro Mariposa), where she greets the pelicans at her window every morning, eats sopaipillas with friends on rainy days, and is showered with adoration from her parents, an indigenous nanny and her Jewish abuela (grandmother), who escaped Austria during WWII.
But then navy warships appear in Valparaíso’s harbor, classmates disappear from school, and the adults whisper words like “riesgo” (risk) and “solidarity.” As doctors who treat the poor, Celeste’s parents are well known supporters of the president’s campaign for free and universal health care. When he is ousted by the military, Celeste’s parents must go into hiding. Soon after, Celeste, too, is sent away, but she must go to freezing and foggy Maine to live with an expatriate aunt.
Although I would put this vividly woven tale in a similar category to the Holocaust books, there’s one big difference: the specificity of the political context.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill invokes a setting of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, with repression ranging from book burning to torture and killings (though not with any graphic content); however, Agosín did not explicitly place the novel in that period.
The overthrown president, for example, has a fictional name, Alarcón. The dictator is never called anything other than “the general,” and the terror in Celeste’s life only lasts a period of three years. Pinochet, by contrast, ruled for 17 years. He came to power in a U.S.-backed coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende.
Nonethless, this fictional story could be paired with nonfiction information/texts to offer a window into a particular place and history that I’m willing to bet most kids still don’t learn about in school. Plus, it’s beautifully written and infused with touches of everyday magic that I love. So check it out!
And please let me know if you have recommendations for other books like this, or of nonfiction for kids that does justice to this part of Chilean history.