Book Club Review for December 2016: The Butterfly Garden

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December 2016 The Butterfly Garden

Blog by Cindy Bushey


Zion Book Club’s December selection, The Butterfly Garden, is not for the faint of heart regardless of the gentle title.  Author Dot Hutchison has written a deeply disturbing tale of kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder.  It pushed the boundaries for many of our members to read this story of teenage girls skillfully made to disappear into a deranged, wealthy man’s secluded greenhouse where their backs are tattooed with large, authentic depictions of real butterflies.  They are raped by this man and his psychopathic older son, live behind glass in this concealed garden while experiencing continued abuse, and then are murdered at the ripe old age of 21 and preserved in resin.  Their bodies are arranged in individual chambers to display the butterflies on their backs, and the chambers line hallways in the living quarters (ironic term, that) of the garden much like butterflies and other insects used to be collected and stuck by pins to boards for display.

The man, known as the Gardener, assigns names to each new girl by which they are henceforth known to all.  Their real names and prior existences live only in their memories.  Readers begin the story by meeting one of the girls, Maya, after some cataclysmic event, and then slowly have the story pieced together by what she tells investigators.  While there are 21 girls in the garden, the author only does in-depth characterizations for a few of them.  Those few are memorable.  Maya is mentally tough from her dysfunctional childhood, and becomes a leader and confidant of the girls.  Over time, the Gardener comes to trust her more than the others and allows her glimpses into his life.  She meets his younger son who discovers the garden and its inhabitants.  Maya slowly works to show him he must reveal this horrible place to the police.  Because both sons desperately want their father’s admiration and love, Maya’s process takes more time than our readers thought necessary.  Many felt the middle of the book was unnecessarily long.  An absolutely outrageous kidnapping by the older son finally spurs the younger to go to the police, and the garden’s end is assured.  The question is how many will survive?

Despite the gory violence, the book is a page-turner.  One reader felt it was Silence of the Lambs meeting Fifty Shades of Gray.  The author captures the reader’s interest and doles out enough details through the continuing interrogation sessions of Maya to keep the reader engaged.  Zion’s readers had to know how the girls got out of the garden, why some were injured, and what happened to the Gardener and his sons, so we kept reading even when repulsed by the subject matter.  Certainly Ms.  Hutchison has skill.  She adroitly portrays girls caught in Stockholm syndrome without ever mentioning the term.  Our readers were left to wonder why these 21 young women could not overpower this man and, as one reader said, shove those tattoo needles where the sun won’t shine.  The explanation the author implies is that these were victims whose psyches were continually assaulted, and who were simply trying to live for their allotted time.   The victim identity cannot be removed like clothing as evidenced by the rescued girls’ behavior at the hospital where they clung together and still looked to Maya’s leadership even though their families were arriving.

It was apparent that the author appeals to young adult readers.  She certainly peppers her book with teenage characters who feel isolated in society and abandoned by their families and other stock characters such as the Gardener’s sons.  Some of the details of dysfunctional childhood were hard to stomach for our readers, but they would resonate with teens dealing with their hormones and angst.  While the story is compelling, some of our readers questioned the need for such a book.  What does it say about readers’ psyches if realistic depictions of gore and violence become entertainment?  (It is worth noting that a movie might be in the works, and that this book will be part of trilogy which might explain the odd ending.)  Is it simply the result of similar television shows invading our homes, not to mention movies?  We wondered if authors recognize the conflict between attracting readers and possibly raising suggestions in disturbed minds?  Do authors make a moral choice when they choose a subject matter and flesh it out on their pages?  Should they?  And yet, do we wish to live in a censored society?  We can choose not to read or see such material, so is the moral choice on the reader’s end?

There were some unbelievable aspects to the book.  Is it possible maintenance people and landscapers would not have wondered at the odd greenhouse with metal walls?  And yet, do we not see instances of such concealment revealed in the news every so often?  Zion’s readers found it sad that we are no longer shocked at such revelations.  How do we turn back time and make abuse of anyone a horrifying anomaly rather than an everyday occurrence?  Perhaps we need to foster a sense of self in our family members, our neighbors, and our community along with a belief that we are all individually known and appreciated.  Is that not truly what everyone wants in the depths of their souls?  To be known and appreciated?  One of the more powerful images left in our readers’ memories of this book is the way the girls would reveal their true names to Maya before they were taken to their deaths.  They wanted the knowledge of their true selves to live in the other girl’s memory so they were not forgotten.  An appreciation for that lesson might be one of the take-aways from this book.  Certainly, none of our readers will ever look at butterflies the same way again!  It is a testament to the author’s skill that our votes for a book that left us cringing and appalled were across the board for many of us were truly upset by the whole concept.  Two readers gave it one thumb down, two were neutral, six gave it one thumb up, two gave it one thumb up and a knuckle, and two gave it two thumbs up.  Feeling a need to cleanse our minds a bit, we move in January to a lighter selection – All Creatures Great and Small by veterinarian James Herriot.