What happened to the little boy at the end of “Madama Butterfly?” That's the question at the heart of Angela Davis-Gardner's new novel Butterfly's Child (Dial Press, 330 pp.) For those who aren't opera buffs, in Puccini's tragedy, the geisha Cio-Cio San kills herself after her faithless American sailor, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, returns to Nagasaki with his new American wife. She leaves behind a note begging him to take care of their three-year-old boy. It's 1895, and Benji Pinkerton is a biracial toddler who would be ostracized in either country, and that's without the emotional baggage of witnessing his mother's suicide and being raised by a father who didn't know he existed and a new stepmother who wished he didn't. (Then there's the foul white substance they expect him to drink.)
That story is the jumping-off point for Davis-Gardner, who creates a highly readable sequel to the tragic opera that works within the characters' existing framework while still managing to sneak in a few surprises. Kate, Benji's stepmother, tries her best to do right by the little boy, while ferociously jealous of her dead rival. She's also terrified that the small Illinois farming community where they live will find out the truth of Benji's parentage. (They've told everyone he's a foundling orphan they're raising to be a Christian.) Frank, meanwhile, is haunted by Cio-Cio San in a way he never was when she was alive. As for Benji, his mother may have given up everything to get him to America, but he's just as determined to make it home to Japan.