By Laurie Rockenbeck
The Butterfly Girl, Rene Denfeld’s second offering in her Naomi Cottle series, explores what it is to be lost versus invisible in a gritty thriller set in Portland’s Skid Row. Denfeld does a masterful job creating a compelling narrative by alternating views between two main characters—Naomi and Celia.
Naomi Cottle was once a lost child, and her work as a private investigator is focused on finding other children. She comes to Portland to search for her sister and has vowed not to take on any other cases until she finds her.
Celia is a twelve-year-old girl who has run from an abusive home. It is through Celia’s eyes that Denfeld shows the starkest separation of the two worlds in which these characters live. Naomi is part of what Celia thinks of as day people as opposed to those who live and die on Skid Row. When Celia first encounters Naomi, it is with the same suspicion and loathing she holds for all day people:
The woman clearly did not belong here, not in these days of sea creatures washed up onshore. What happened in the night was meant to stay secret–like what had happened with her step-dad, Teddy. Celia had made the mistake of telling. She had found out that the people of the day don’t want to know what happened in the night.
Denfeld does not shy away from the devastating realities of children living on the street. Yet, she does so in subtle, heartbreaking prose.
Celia had been in the free clinic before. That had been for an STD check. Celia didn’t want to get pregnant or get STDs. She was worried about her period starting because then it would mean she could have a baby, and she already had one–her sister. She had told the doctor all this while filling her pockets with the free condoms, not understanding why his face looked so sad. Day People.
Interestingly, Celia’s life is not entirely bereft of kindness or community. While Celia struggles to find food and a place to sleep at night, she is not alone. Other teens gather in groups, almost like packs for security. During a terrifying encounter, Celia pees her pants. A friend brings her a new pair from the Goodwill bin.
Night had fallen and in the dark he and the other street kids circled Celia so the men in the cars would not see her change. They covered her with their bodies while she stripped and put on the new pants Rich had found. They sang silly songs to her to make her feel better.
Naomi initially sees Celia as a source, someone who might have information she can use to find her sister. She is almost blind to the dangers posed to Celia on a daily basis. In fact, Naomi’s focus on finding her sister makes her incapable of acknowledging the people living, and dying, right in front of her. Naomi acknowledges the multiple murders of young girls and teens, but as each dead girl is found along the river, she uses her sister as an excuse not to get involved.
When Celia learns Naomi is searching for her younger sister, Celia begins to see Naomi as something more than just another day person. They are both big sisters trying to help their younger sisters. Naomi’s is being held somewhere; Celia’s is living at home with an abusive stepfather.
Naomi’s resolve to distance herself from the current crisis in Portland begins to dissolve when she finally “sees” Celia.
Celia was sitting outside Sisters of Mercy, scratching the bloody bandage around her leg. She had rolled up her jeans so anyone walking by could see the bandage, the blood. She knew what she was doing. She was trying to get attention. See, she wanted to say, I am hurt. Someone care.
But no one did. They walked on by, not even looking at her.
Except for Naomi.
Passages like this are achingly poignant. It is impossible not to recognize the “day person” inside while watching Celia navigate her world. How many people like Celia have we passed on the street?
Once Celia has entered Naomi’s consciousness, Naomi slowly works her way into investigating the murdered girls. That is to say, for the first two-thirds of the book, Denfeld makes sure we know the characters thoroughly. We care about them deeply before the author throws them into mortal peril. The constant foreshadowing keeps us on edge. The more we get to know Celia and Naomi, the more we worry. This slow buildup makes the final third of this book a nail-biting, page-turning thriller.
This story picks up a year after the events of Denfeld’s first novel, The Child Finder. While the stories can be read as stand-alone novels, do yourself a favor and read The Child Finder followed by this one. You will not be disappointed.
Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie… there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro-dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.