When I hear a new song, I primarily listen to the melody, and only later take in and digest the lyrics. That’s what I did when I first heard “Poor Butterfly,” a song composed in 1916 by Raymond Hubbell with lyrics by John Golden. Well, I was smitten by the melody – and I still am. When I paid attention to the lyrics I found that they told a story that you may be familiar with:
There’s a story told of a little Japanese.
Sitting demurely ‘neath the cherry blossom trees.
Miss Butterfly’s her name.
A sweet little innocent child was she
‘Till a fine young American from the sea
To her garden came.
They met ‘neath the cherry blossoms every day.
And he taught her how to love the American way.
To love with her soul t’was easy to learn.
Then he sailed away with a promise to return.
‘Neath the blossoms waiting.
For she loved him so.
The moments pass into hours.
The hours pass into years.
And as she smiles through her tears,
She murmurs low:
The moon and I know that he’ll be faithful
I’m sure he’ll come to me by and by.
But if he won’t come back then I’ll never sigh or cry,
I just must die.
You surely recognize the source of this story if you enjoy opera. The story that the lyrics tell is based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly. In the opera, which was based on a play by David Belasco (which was in turn based on a short story by John Luther Long), a very callous U. S. naval officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who is based in Nagasaki, Japan, “marries” a 15 year old geisha named Cio-Cio San, who is called Butterfly. Butterfly is shunned by her family and friends after her marriage, and has only Pinkerton and her loyal servant Suzuki to love her. When Pinkerton’s ship is ordered to leave Japan, he promises to return to Butterfly, but really intends to go home to marry his American sweetheart.
Three years later we find Butterfly still patiently waiting, and still believing that Pinkerton will return to her. We also find out that she has a son – Pinkerton’s son. When someone writes to Pinkerton to tell him about the existence of his son, he and his American wife, Kate, return to Nagasaki to bring his son to America. When Butterfly finds out that he has only come back for his son, and that he has brought his American wife with him, she commits suicide.
So what happens to their son? We are lead to believe that Pinkerton and his wife take the boy back to America and raise him. And in Butterfly’s Child by Angela Davis-Gardner that’s just what happens. Benji lives on a farm with his father and Kate, who he believes is his real mother, until he finds out that his real mother was a Japanese geisha. Then he travels back to Japan to find out what he can about her, but he hits one dead end after another. Along the way Puccini’s opera becomes a central element of the plot. Many well-crafted twists and turns later, Benji finally finds out the surprising truth.
A short story, a play, an opera, a song, and a book have been written about her. “Poor” Butterfly indeed!