Eleven year old Celeste lives on Butterfly Hill in Valparaiso, Chile, with her parents, grandmother and Nana Delfina, who cares for them all. She loves to sit on the roof and look at the stars at night, and leaves her window open to see and hear the pelicans that greet her each morning. The city built on hills next the ocean is described in such detail you'll feel like you have been there. Celeste travels to school by cable car . . . when the old creaky cars are working that is. She also visits poorer neighborhoods of her city after a rainstorm with her parents, who are doctors. But Celeste's life changes dramatically when the president of her country is assassinated and a dictator takes over. The colorful murals on her school walls are whitewashed, the pelicans no longer greet her, people begin to disappear, and her parents become targets. She is sent far away to Maine to stay with her Tia Graciela. Though it is so very different from Chile, Celeste learns English, becomes friends with another refuge, Kim from Korea, and makes a home for herself. And some things remind her of home: the lighthouse, the stars in the sky. After two years, the dictator dies and Celeste returns to Chile. Much has changed and her parents have not yet returned, but Abuela Frida and Nana Delfina are there, and her friends Christobal and Marisol are thrilled to see her. With Christobal, Celeste sets out on an unusual journey, searching for her father.
The time and names in this book are deliberately unspecific. It seems to be 1973, when Pinochet takes over Chile after Allende's assassination. But he is only referred to as the Dictator, and his rule lasted much longer than two years. Perhaps Agosin is kinder to her character than life was to her (Agosin's family left Chile when Pinochet took power.) The upheaval in Chile and the disappearance of thousands of people is hauntingly true. The book clearly notes it is a work of fiction. It's an odd mix though . . . historical fiction that is only partly historical fiction. I would love to hear others thoughts on this. And it is unusual as well for a book first published in the US to be translated from Spanish. Does anyone know of any other books that this is true for? Is this book also available in Spanish?
Agosin's language is beautiful; I was not surprised to learn she is a poet. The story has a bit of magical realism that is characteristic of much Latin American writing . . . something that feels a bit unusual to me but I think I'm learning to recognize and appreciate. I loved this book for its strong characterization of place, especially of the city of Valparaiso -- I *almost* feel like I've been there and definitely would love to go. Celeste's experiences of change, of being an exile, of trying to fit in, learning to love a new place while missing home, were also a strength of the book.
"Maybe once you are an exile, you always are an exile. Always missing somewhere else, always carrying a bit from here and a bit from there, and always with a bit of a broken heart." p. 280.