THE BUTTERFLY’S DAUGHTER by Mary Alice Monroe (2011)
It’s November! That means our beloved monarch butterflies are returning to the Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove on their annual wintering pilgrimage. Thousands of visitors come to the Grove to enjoy their beauty every year from November to February. No one can truly explain their power to inspire joy and wonder in most of us.* We can only appreciate the beauty of this gift from Nature.
Monroe incorporates a great deal of monarch facts and lore into this book. Each chapter starts with facts about them, and snippets of cultural beliefs and myth are scattered throughout. One fairly common belief is that butterflies are the souls of our dead loved ones come to visit us.
She has also chosen to focus on the wintering migration of monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains to Michoacan in Mexico. The monarchs that arrive in Pismo Beach are from west of the Rockies.
Monroe weaves the monarchs into her fiction story about three generations of Mexican women tied to the butterflies: Esperanza is the Abuela; Mariposa (Butterfly) is her daughter and mother of Luz (Light).
Abuela and Luz live together in Milwaukee with no other family members nearby. Mariposa relinquished 5-year-old Luz to her mother to raise, then disappeared for reasons unknown (until later in the book). Luz has been told and believes her mother is dead. We meet Luz at the age of 21. She works in a foundry to support herself and Abuela after giving up her wish to attend college.
One day Abuela receives a phone call that prods her to start planning a road trip to San Antonio to visit other family members. She even buys an old orange VW bug, which is completely out of character, but she won’t explain why to Luz.
One morning before they can leave, Luz wakes to find her Abuela dead in bed from a heart attack. Of course she’s devastated, alone except for her boyfriend in Milwaukee, but no family nearby. She finally decides to take the road trip Abuela had planned, but to take Abuela’s ashes to Michoacan to more family members by the Day of the Dead.
When Luz arrives in Chicago, the car breaks down. She realizes she’s in an area of many Mexican businesses and people, finds a job for a few days in a Mexican restaurant and a place to stay. A young woman in the restaurant, Ofelia, is 8 months pregnant and living with an abusive man. One night she calls Luz in a panic: she’s been beaten and needs to be rescued. Luz reluctantly takes on this burden, and they proceed on the road trip together.
Before long, Ofelia is showing signs of going into early labor, so they detour to Kansas City where Ofelia says she has an aunt. The aunt is no longer there, so they find a woman who knew her who takes care of her. Ofelia is delivered into a safe and better situation, gives birth, so Luz can be on her way as originally planned…except that now she has a NEW passenger!
Margaret works in the office of the plant nursery where Luz and Ofelia stop to meet the woman who takes responsibility for Ofelia. Luz sees her unhappiness and impulsively invites her to join the trip. At first Margaret refuses, then as Luz drives away, comes running after her. Margaret is trained as a horticulturist, never met a plant she didn’t love, but somehow got sidetracked into working in the nursery office. By accepting this opportunity, she redirects herself back onto the path of a happy and fulfilling life, as we see later in the book.
Further down the road, Luz and Margaret take another young woman under their wings at a campground where they spend the night. They draw Stacie away from a potentially dangerous situation. When the 3 of them stop at a gas station the next day, Stacie encounters a man headed for Los Angeles, which is where she’d tried to go for years. Luz and luck or serendipity send off another woman to her goal.
Upon arriving in San Antonio, Luz is unable to immediately locate her aunt Maria to tell her of her mother’s death. Once she does, she meets other family members, including her own mother who had supposedly died. To say that Luz is shocked is an understatement, and it takes a long time for her to understand and eventually forgive her mother for her actions. I’ll leave it for readers to learn about the mother’s behavior that demonstrates her name: Mariposa, or butterfly.
After leaving San Antonio with Mariposa and Margaret crammed into the VW bug, they head toward Michoacan to meet the rest of the extended family. Margaret leaves them at the border where they re-encounter Billy, a former professor of Margaret’s who has a passion for tagging the monarchs to trace their migration paths. Margaret chooses to travel with him, thereby pursuing the path from which she got sidetracked years ago and rediscovering her own passion and happiness.
When Luz and Mariposa finally arrive at the home of their relatives in Michoacan, everyone has mixed feelings to work through. Not all relatives are thrilled to see Mariposa. She is quite fragile with much emotional baggage to work through while trying to keep herself on an even keel or not just walk away. Fortunately, she has a patient and understanding person to help her in San Antonio.
The best part of this book is the description of the Day of the Dead celebration and the return of the monarchs. Picturing that gave me chills. The scene at the Sacred Circle with her mother to release Abuela’s ashes is unforgettable. The reader immediately wants to go to this place of beauty and serenity.
Luz fulfilled her commitment to her Abuela, and in the process, connected with her extended family. By understanding the cycle of the monarchs, she comes to understand the cycle of birth and death, continuity, transformation, and rebirth. She has found her own true path. She’s ready to return home to her boyfriend, a good man, and to find a way to return to school to finish her studies.
Monroe starts the book with an Aztec myth about a goddess who sacrifices herself to bring light to a dark world. Abuela told Luz this story many times, asking her grandchild this:
“So, querida, do you understand that in every life there is death and rebirth? Life cannot be renewed without sacrifice. Now I ask you, my daughter, mi preciosa. My young goddess. Will you bring light to the world?” [p. 2]
Luz did indeed bring light to so many around her: Ofelia, Margaret, Stacie, relatives…and finally herself.
*Not everyone loves butterflies. Lepidopterophobia—fear of butterflies—is real. Find more information here.
This book is available at the Grover Beach Community Library.