I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting all that much when I started reading Bernie McGill’s The Butterfly Cabinet. It starts with a letter, then a rambling introduction by a woman in a rest home who announces that the time has come to tell the letter writer, Anna, the truth about her grandmother. Then the narrative shifts to the prison diary of that grandmother. It takes her a bit to warm up, but when McGill gets going, this book gets very, very good.
In a sense, this book sort of reminds me of Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness because it centers (sort of) on the same question: what’s the right way to parent? While the antagonist in that book was deeply disturbed and sociopathic, the main character here–the grandmother, Harriet Ormond–wrestles with a lot of the same issues as Libby Hatch. They are pressured to be perfect Victorian mothers, to raise perfect children. And their children “let them down,” so to speak. Anyone who’s spent any time around kids knows that the behaviors Harriet and Libby feel the need to crack down on is perfectly normal behavior. Everyone around Harriet feels that she deals too harshly with the children, but they don’t interfere apart from showing Harriet’s children kindness when the opportunity arises. In fact, it’s one of Harriet’s punishments gone terribly awry that lands her in prison.
One could argue that there might not be one right way to parent, but there are a hell of a lot of ways not to parent. It’s a corollary to Tolstoy’s maxim about happy and unhappy families. What Harriet puts her children through is definitely one of the wrong ways. Even her Victorian co-characters admit that. But when they put Harriet on trial and convict her, you have to wonder if it really was her fault or if it was just an awful accident. More and more of the truth about what happens comes out as Harriet and Maddie, the old woman in the rest home, take turns narrating the story. Interestingly, they trade places as villain and victim until the final facts fall into place. It’s very graceful the way McGill writes it, and I didn’t see it coming until the characters made their revelations.
We also learn more about what made Harriet the harsh mother she was. I can’t give away the biggest reason because that would spoil it, but I can say that her own childhood would have warped anyone. Harriet’s mother tried to mold her into the perfect lady (figuratively and literally). Harriet’s diary reveals that she would have liked nothing better than to be out of doors, catching butterflies and riding her horses. Being the mother she thought she needed to be meant she was trapped inside all the time. I think, even now, it’s hard to admit that a mother would feel resentful of her children. We still have ideas about what a mother should and shouldn’t be that are very hard to shake, I think.