Bernice L. McFadden

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden tells the story of Abeo Kata, a young girl in Ukemby, a fictitious country in Africa. Although Ukemby cannot be found on a map, the description of Abeo’s ritual servitude, known as trokosi, whereby children are abandoned in a religious shrine to atone for ancestral crimes, is both realistic and heart-wrenching.

Abeo is born into an affluent, loving family. When her father falls on hard times and the family experiences a series of calamities, Abeo’s father acquiesces to his mother’s demands and abandons Abeo in a religious shrine in the hope of turning the tide against his misfortunes by appeasing the gods. Abeo is nine years old at the time. She spends the next fifteen years as a virtual slave to the priest and his son. Like other young girls in the shrine, she is forced to work in the fields, endures physical and mental abuse, harassment, starvation, and sexual assault. Eventually rescued, she moves to America where she is embraced in a cocoon of love and support, undergoes healing, and makes a life for herself.

McFadden tells Abeo’s story in sparse, economical prose. Things happen, things change, lives are turned upside down in the space of a paragraph. We move quickly through the different stages of Abeo’s life in matter of fact sentences that lack adornment. McFadden carefully balances the harrowing details with distance so the reader is not mired in the horror. The technique is effective since the horror she describes is sufficiently disturbing that it needs no embellishment. Some of her most effective sentences simply declare a girl’s age after she has witnessed or experienced a horrific example of abuse.

McFadden is to be commended for shedding light on the practice of ritual servitude and for doing so without lapsing into melodramatic, sentimental prose. However, Abeo’s fate at the end of the novel veers toward the cliché and improbable. Here is a woman who has supposedly been so traumatized by her experience that she becomes catatonic and is temporarily rendered speechless. She recovers gradually by watching The Wizard of Oz, a movie she remembers from her childhood. And while in America, she learns to trust and to find healing in a romantic and sexual relationship with a man. She is finally able to transcend her past when she has a dream of stabbing her abuser.

In reality, recovery for a traumatized individual is not that simple. It is a long, complex process which may take years and seldom occurs in a forward trajectory. Continuous spurts of progress and relapses are the norm, especially for victims of child sexual assault. Survivors are frequently unable to engage in loving relationships until after healing has occurred, not before. It is understandable that McFadden wanted to conclude her novel on an uplifting note, but in terms of the terror Abeo endured for fifteen years, the speed of her recovery and its very nature stretches the truth.

Recommended in spite of an improbable conclusion to what was otherwise an engaging, well-written novel shedding light on a brutal practice.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review