The latest novel by Bernice L. McFadden, “Praise Song for the Butterflies,” takes place in the fictitious West African country of Ukemby but explores a subject that is unfortunately very real: ritual servitude.
Abeo is a precocious 9-year-old girl living an idyllic life in the affluent section of Port Masi with her Catholic parents: Wasik, a high-ranking government employee, and her mother Ismae, a former model. But all at once her world begins to fall apart as Wasik is suspended from work and the family’s savings dwindle to nothing. Wasik tries to shield his wife, two children, and his mother from their financial situation, but soon it all becomes too much: “Wasik looked around and swore that he could hear his life collapsing.”
At his wit’s end, Wasik listens to his mother, a believer in ancient traditions, who implores him to leave Abeo at a distant village shrine to the gods. “Then and only then,” she says, “will things get better for you.”
Ritual servitude is the belief that if a child is given as tribute, her family’s fortune will improve. So Abeo becomes trokosi: a wife to the gods — and a slave, subject to grueling physical labor, a meager diet, and the horrors that come from serving the priest and his son. After 15 years, Abeo forgets her former life and can only focus on surviving the day-to-day atrocities that have become all-too commonplace.
Horrific, yes, but McFadden gives readers a strong foothold at the start: the book opens with Abeo in her 30s, living independently, a world away in New York City. We know that she makes it, a truth that transforms this novel into a gripping page turner, as readers are anxious to learn about her escape and her path toward building a new life.
Beautifully written and expertly structured, “Praise Song for the Butterflies” includes plenty of twists, such as surprises about Abeo’s lineage, as well as delicate explorations of the gray areas that surface for Abeo — and her family — when she returns to her former life. Abeo’s time in New York is particularly well-drawn, as McFadden doesn’t oversimplify the difficulties of recovery and demonstrates (particularly through Femi) the importance of patience, understanding and unconditional love.
Perhaps one of the best books of the year, “Praise Song for the Butterflies” is a stunning, brief portrait that humanizes the plight of those in ritual servitude. It’s a fantastic work from a gifted author.