7 August 2023
On Fly, Butterfly, Fly! by Frances Kirkham
Kirkham’s book is a first-person fictionalized account of a US Naval Officer’s daughter. It begins just prior to her father’s assignment in Japan, then follows her through that duty station and the schools, culture, food, social mores, etc., of living in rural Japan. I will not lie to you: I did not finish this book. The plot seemed to be going nowhere, so I took a lesson even from that and put the book down after reading about 1/3 of it.
This book rubbed me wrong. I feel you’d need a sense of disdain for the rest of the world and US cultural norms in order to call yourself a “child of the world”—or, it’s not requisite, but it’s how I perceive of her view of the world based on the things she writes. Labeling oneself in this way implies a sense of, “I’m special” that nobody else can touch because they haven’t experienced the world as she has. It feels like a little crown she’s placed on her own head. “Child of the world”—you lived in Japan. You’re a military brat. Expats do this all the time; ours is not a terribly unique experience. Maybe I'm being snarky. I'm sure I'm being judgmental...perhaps my readers will permit my attitude, today.
Kirkham’s is a straightforward narrative, written in chronological order—already problematic in is unoriginality. There’s a believability issue here, too, if this is to be believed as a fictionalized memoir: how much of this is remembered? It seems far too much detail exists in these pages for it to be memoir. Tiny moments. Minutiae. Details that feel, too often, superfluous to the tale. And what is the tale? Kirkham’s story centers up on a series of evens—not any persona/character. We get Anna, sure, but she seems overly rule-bent, precocious, snobbish, and annoying. We’re not inclined to be on her side. She touches upon heavy things and then immediately turns away from them, such that we’re given no opportunity to feel changes evolving inside of her. We have no indication that she’s headed toward some significant character change/development over time. She was born curious about the world. She continues curious about the world. Nothing happens. Nothing seems to build except perhaps her understanding that her father lacks emotional IQ (as a product of the Navy).
Kirkham’s chapters are strictly event-based and chronological. This is why she must rely on tacking moral lessons at the end of each section. I prefer when messages are indirectly and implicitly infused throughout. That way, we don’t need to bludgeon the reader with it at the end. What Kirkham is doing is precisely what I was taught by my UNM instructor not to do. The reason, I think, she must do it this way is because her narrative lacks interiority. We only ever get snippets of inner thoughts from Anna as italicized asides—and they only appear in one-line sentences at increments of about two per page (sometimes fewer, sometimes more). That is to say, there’s no sensemaking whatsoever until the final paragraph of a section, here and there.
But it also presses against my willing suspension of disbelief that a 13-year-old would have the interiority and sophistication of thought that this Anna does.
What bothers me most about this narrative are the ingrained judgementalism about everything Anna witnesses. Class/rank expectations—the sergeant’s kids. The girl on the bus. Even herself, Anna judges herself far too harshly for peeping through the window shade, as though to see people were itself a misdemeanor. She’s snarky and superior (but also loathe of her own inferiority) and that feels like an outcome/side-effect/product of her Naval officer upbringing.
From this text I made a few decisions about my own writing—mostly what not to do. First, let me say that I did some research to figure out how this book was rated, where it was published, etc. The publisher seems to no longer exist, and when it did exist, it published only small independent books from military brats. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but the book’s quality did not evidence that it was ever peer-reviewed. Anyway, as I said, Frances’s book lists a series of events that do not constitute a plot because they are not based on cause/effect (a lesson I learned during our Plot seminar during residency). Therefore, it was not engaging. It lacked interiority and character development; those are things I’ll be infusing heavy into my own novel. Kirkham does this thing where she has a pattern: description, dialogue, internal thoughts (in italics)—then she repeats the same pattern over and over. It drove me nuts! Made me realize that I don’t want to fall into any patterns in my writing, ever. Finally, Kirkham’s interiority, the italicized thoughts, is where she places her moral lessons. Done this way, those lessons feel preachy; I’d prefer the lesson to be unspoken—you know how they say, “Show, don’t tell.” My protagonist’s lesson will be evidenced by the consequences of her actions—not by her thoughts at all. In this way, I can accomplish the same goal without preaching.