Michele Weiner's Reviews > The Butterfly Cabinet

The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie Mcgill
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Jun 20, 2012

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I normally give any book I finish at least three stars. This one, I would give 2.5. It's based on the true story of a woman who was sentenced to a year in prison following the death of her four-year-old daughter in 1892. In the imagination of Bernie Mcgill, the woman, named Harriet Ormond in the book, is unusually terse and tactless, fearless, wanting nothing more than freedom from expectations and relationships. She is unable to display emotion or to show love, though she enjoys sex with her husband and has given birth to 9 children in 12 years, causing some gossip in her neighborhood. Her first seven children are boys, who are abused and abusing in their turn. Her eighth, Charlotte, is more troublesome to her perfectionist mother than all the boys together. She simply cannot be toilet trained, and she lives in her own imagination at times, so that her mother can't reach her. This infuriates Harriet, who often puts her in restraints in a cold and windowless room for hours at a time. Mom is a devotee of hunting foxes, riding horses for pleasure, and collecting butterflies. Half of the book is written from Harriet's perspective, from her jailhouse journal written in 1892. The other half is from the perspective of a servant girl, Nanny Madd, aka Maddie, from her sick bed in 1968.

The remainder of the review contains spoilers.

Harriot's spinster sister, Julia, and the servants are aware that Harriet abuses the kids, and try to help in small ways though Harriet forbids them from speaking to the children. Young maid Maddie is fond of Charlotte and risks the wrath of her mistress on several occasions to help the child. One day, Harriet ties Charlotte up for soiling her clothing, a common punishment. But this time she misplaces the key to the wardrobe room where Charlotte is confined. It is found by Maddie, who intends to bring water to Charlotte, but who is distracted by a sexual encounter with her best friend's husband. Meanwhile, Harriet wants to let Charlotte go, but can't find the key. She doesn't trouble herself too much about it, and when Maddie is through with the sex, she puts the key back where she found it and Harriet finds it where she suspected it was lost. But when she goes to get Charlotte, the child is dead, strangled by her restraints.

An inquest and then a trial ensues and Harriet is found guilty of abusing her children, and spends her year in jail, writing a journal in which she reveals her cold, cold heart. And finds out that she is not her father's daughter. She is the child of her mother's first love, thus explaining why Harriet has never felt part of her family of origin and why she is so different from her sister, Julia. Harriet has her ninth child, Florence, while in prison. Florence is removed almost immediately to be raised by Julia and Harriet's husband. Florence marries and has a child, Anna, whom she loves, but she dies young of consumption. Maddie's short-lived dalliance has resulted in a child, a boy who she leaves on the doorstep to be raised by her lover's wife. The boy later dies in WWII, but leaves a son behind, who eventually marries Florence's daughter, Anna. Anna is pregnant, and visits Maddie, now known as Nanny Madd at her nursing home to hear what Nanny as to tell her about her family.

Nanny has unfortunately dribbled the information out long before so that the reader is just dying for her to spit it out. There are no surprises by the time the beans are finally spilled. I looked up the NYTimes article about the case from 1892. It didn't give too much detail, and I plan to do some more looking to see if I can find a true account. The Butterfly Cabinet was totally unsatisfying and far to fake-philosophical for me.

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