McKinney reviews 'Butterfly's Daughter' and 'Looking for Utopia'

info@islandpacket.comOctober 9, 2011 

  • "The Butterfly's Daughter," by Mary Alice Monroe. Gallery Books. 382 pages. $25.

    "Looking For Utopia, The Life and Times of John C. West," by Philip G. Grose. University of South Carolina Press. 352 pages. $34.95.

The monarch butterfly has a strange and almost unbelievable migration pattern.

It spends its summers in areas throughout North America. As winter approaches, millions of the tiny insects begin a flight of up to 3,000 miles to such places as Angangueo, a tiny town high in the mountains of central Mexico. They lay their eggs on the milkweed plant (their only source of food) and the eggs are hatched into caterpillars, which go through the chrysalis stage to become butterflies.

With the coming of spring, the new butterflies head north again, continuing a centuries-old pattern. What is remarkable is that the ones who leave Argangueo after the winter are not the ones who arrived -- but their great-great-grandchildren. How do they know where to go? Nobody knows.

The story of the monarch is woven into the Aztec myths told by generations of Mexican mothers to their children. Although for Luz, in "Butterfly's Daughter," it was told to her by her abuela, her grandmother. Her mother was Mariposa, the butterfly, who disappeared when Luz was a little girl and her grandmother has always told her Mariposa was dead. Her grandmother was her only family, and then she died.

Luz was devastated. But before her death her abuela had expressed a wish to return to her home town in Mexico. Luz had refused to go.

Now, despite everyone's advice, she determines to live out her grandmother's last wish -- to leave her home in Wisconsin and drive abuela's battered old Volkswagen down through the country and carry her ashes back to Angangueo.

This, then, is the story of that trip. She meets a number of people on her way. Ofelia is a battered woman, pregnant with no family of her own. Margaret hides her beauty and is afraid to take chances. Stacie drifts from one bad relationship to another.

Just as Luz is transformed by the trip, so are the other women as they, like the butterfly, find their way home. Luz helps them all, even as she grows more uncertain about the wisdom of making the trip, until she meets the woman who will transform her life forever.

Author Monroe lives in South Carolina, and won awards for her two previous novels, "Time is a River" and "Last Light over Carolina." She is currently living in her Lowcountry home and working on her next novel.

'LOOKING FOR UTOPIA'

John West was governor of this state from 1971 to 1975, having previously served 11 years in the state Senate and a term as lieutenant governor.

He also was President Jimmy Carter's controversial choice to a sensitive diplomatic post, ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

In state politics, he was the right man at the right time. He ran under the slogan "Elect a Good Man Governor," and in a conservative state that was beginning to recognize that the dramatic rise in black voters had changed the political scene forever, it was comforting to get away from the race-baiting of the past.

Pledging to run a "color blind" administration, he began immediately to eliminate discrimination from state government, making South Carolina history by appointing civil rights activist James Clyburn to serve on his executive staff. During his term, West established the Human Affairs Commission, created a medical school at the University of South Carolina, and brought in $3 billion in new industry, resulting in 50,000 jobs.

The author worked on the staffs of Governors Robert McNair and John West, and had access to West's personal journals and letters. While much of the book deals with his political life, it also covers West's childhood, courtship of his high school sweetheart, Army career, years as a diplomat and his practice of the law, which frequently involved racial conflicts.

Perhaps the best view of West comes from his son Jack: "He was a combination of John C. Calhoun and Atticus Finch."

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