The Butterflies of Grand Canyon
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When Jane Merkle travels with her much-older husband Morris to the small town at the edge of the Grand Canyon where her in-laws reside, she has low expectations. Life at home in St. Louis has prepared her to expect less, or at the very least, to expect something completely different than what she desires. But as Jane becomes more accustomed to the landscape of the canyon, at once compelling and dangerous, she is drawn similarly into the lives of its inhabitants. And when Morris returns to St. Louis by himself for the summer, Jane begins a metamorphosis not unlike the life cycle of the butterflies of Grand Canyon. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she has made the acquaintance of a handsome young ranger, Euell Wigglesworth.
On the same day that Jane arrives in town, Dr. Elzada Clover and her young friend, assistant, and former student, Lois, arrive at the behest of the town’s principal players. One of Miss Clover’s oldest friends, Emery Kolb, is under suspicion of murder when he reveals a skeleton in his garage – a skeleton with a bullet hole in the back of the skull. Miss Clover becomes immersed in old feelings as she is pulled deeper and deeper into the investigation, and she finds herself studying for the first time a subject vastly different from the plant life she’s so accustomed to: human nature.
The Butterflies of Grand Canyon follows two very different women as they navigate a colorful butterfly season filled with deception, intrigue, revelation, and betrayal. Populated by a unique contingent of characters, and full of a studied reverence for the beauty and potential danger of the terrain, The Butterflies of Grand Canyon addresses the mysteries of the natural and human worlds and comes to poignant conclusions about both.
Margaret Erhart is a river and hiking guide in the Grand Canyon and southern Utah. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and in several anthologies, and her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and teaches creative writing.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARGARET ERHART Q. The Butterflies of Grand Canyon was a finalist for the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Tell us about that experience, from being reviewed by Amazon customers to being reviewed by some of the publishing industry’s best and brightest.
Q. The Butterflies of Grand Canyon was a finalist for the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Tell us about that experience, from being reviewed by Amazon customers to being reviewed by some of the publishing industry’s best and brightest.
The obvious thing is that the Amazon customers who reviewed each finalist were, for the most part, our friends. And many of my friends are not technically proficient and some of them don’t have computers or know how to go on-line. So that limited the reviewing a bit. As for the industry’s best and brightest, I’m grateful for discerning readers in whatever form they take. Thank you, best and brightest. And thanks to my technically-challenged friends who support me in so many other ways.
Q. It’s obvious from the book that you have a deep respect and affinity for the landscape surrounding the Grand Canyon. Did your characters come to you first, or did the novel spring from a desire to write about the natural and dangerous beauty of the area?
The desire to write about the place was there, but in order to result in a story, a landscape needs characters. Several characters in the book are historical characters whose relationship to the Grand Canyon existed in reality, not just my imagination. I always listen to characters. I don’t just put words in their mouth and thoughts in their head. These characters who had known the Grand Canyon from different perspectives—from inside the Park Service, as river runners and botanists and photographers—they had a tremendous amount to teach me about the canyon’s human and natural history, so the more I wrote, the more my respect and affinity grew. And of course I was hiking regularly into the canyon and developing a relationship in an experiential and tactile way. The beauty there was tremendous. I guess I was slow but it took me until well into the novel to realize that the Grand Canyon was a character in this book. Not a backdrop, not just a setting, but something living and moving whose influence on the other characters was critical. Life-changing.
Q. You’ve written essays for the New York Times and your commentaries have aired on National Public Radio, and you’ve written five novels. In addition to writing, you teach creative writing on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Where do you find time to collect butterflies? What appeals to you the most about the hobby?
Most of my collecting happened during the time I was writing this book. Flagstaff, Arizona, where I live, is a town full of outdoor people and scientists (as well as musicians, photographers, artists, and writers). I had no science background. I think my last biology class was in 6th grade. I cast my lot with some science types and learned from them that science is story. Rocks, bugs, plants—each tells a story and their stories intertwine. Catch a butterfly and you’ve caught a world. You’ve caught a story.
Q. Many of the characters in this novel share your interest in butterfly collecting, and it’s also set in the area where you live. Are there any of the characters for whom you have a particular affinity? Because so many elements from your own life are present in the book – butterflies, river running and hiking, the Grand Canyon region -- would you call this a personal novel, even though it is set in a very different decade from the one we live in now, and the book is filled with so many diverse characters?
To tackle the second question first, yes, I’d say it’s a personal novel. Every novel is personal. Not necessarily autobiographical, but true to the author’s perception of the world. That’s my definition of personal. Fiction writers draw their authority from the accuracy of their perception. Writing that isn’t convincing is writing that’s not based in the personal. And by the way, you have to remember, the different decade in which the book is set is the decade in which I grew up! To answer the first question, the character I feel closest to is Oliver Hedquist. I like his depth, his reflective nature. I also have great admiration for Elzada Clover. As you may remember, she’s an historical character, and it’s interesting to wonder whether my feelings for her come from what I know of her actual life or the fictional inner life I’ve created on the page. I’d say we’re still getting to know one another, and to be honest, her intelligence is a little intimidating.
Q. What are you working on now? What will we see from you in bookstores soon? (Or, in the case of the radio, on air?)
I write a weekly column called Language Lessons for the local paper. I’ve never preferred non-fiction, but I’ve greatly enjoyed writing these short pieces. They may be published as a book one of these days. Also, Elzada Clover and I are not done with one another. In real life she spent some time on the Havasupai reservation, in a dramatically beautiful place called Havasu Canyon. She was collecting cacti, the loves of her life, and my imagination has already begun to create a set of circumstances for her there. If I sense no unturned stones within a character, nothing more to discover or reveal, I won’t continue to write about them. But she’s a reserved person by nature and I’m curious to know her better, to learn her story by writing it.
- How well does Erhart evoke the landscape surrounding the Grand Canyon? Because the landscape is predominant in the book, were there any particular passages concerning the natural world that you found particularly beautiful and moving? Also, how did these passages work as literary devices, either reflecting the emotional states of the characters or foreshadowing events to come?
- Many of the characters in this book could be described as standing at the edge of a precipice – overlooking some next part of their life that seems difficult to navigate or impossible to fathom. Identify those characters and discuss the ways in which the Grand Canyon represents the difficult new chapters in their lives.
- Much of the novel features the actual activity of chasing, collecting and cataloguing butterflies around the Grand Canyon. Some of the characters engaged in butterfly collection are not only embarking on new adventures, but are changing because of them. Discuss the ways in which the life cycle of butterflies is an apt metaphor for the characters in the novel. Also consider how the butterflies work on a more literal level as plot catalysts.
- There are lots of characters in this novel – which did you find to be the most well-developed? Which ones were your favorites? Which would you liked to have seen developed further? Did you ever find it confusing or hard to keep up with so many characters?
- One might argue that there are two mysteries at work in this novel – one, the mystery of the heart (Jane & Euell, Dotty & Lowell) and two, the mystery of the skeleton in Emery Kolb’s garage. Which did you find more compelling? Was one given more prominence in the novel than the other? Discuss the ways in which the two mysteries complemented one another. Are there others engaged in the mystery of the heart?
- Discuss Dotty and Oliver’s relationship and the way they cope with her infidelity. Do you think Dotty and Oliver are being fair to one another and true to themselves? Does Oliver’s acceptance of Dotty’s continued unfaithfulness seem genuine? How does their situation differ from Jane and Morris’? Do you believe that Jane and Morris will continue in the same vein? Does theirs seem like a realistic and reasonable arrangement?
- Consider Jane Merkle’s development over the course of the novel. We aren’t given too many details about the beginning of her life before she arrives in the West. What did you infer about Jane’s character from the scant details Erhart gives us about Jane’s past? How great is her transformation?
- Likewise, does Elzada Clover remain the same as she plays detective in the Grand Canyon? She’s there because she’s been asked to put to rest a decades-old murder mystery, but might we argue that she’s also putting other ghosts to rest while on this trip? How do we see her relationship with Lois change over the novel? Or does it? What about her approach to her vocation? Is Miss Clover as sure of herself and the world as she was when she stepped off the train at the novel’s start?
- Discuss the wedding near the end of the book and its significance. How does it act as a climax for the narrative? What significant changes occur in the lives of the characters because of this particular event? How is your perception of the characters altered after this scene and why?
- When Dotty discovers the nature of Gracia and Lowell’s relationship in California, do you feel sympathy for her predicament? What do you think Dotty learns from this experience? Do you think this might signal a new beginning for her and Oliver, or will she stray from their marriage again?
- When the murder mystery is solved, did everything come together for you? Likewise, did the resolution of the entire novel satisfy you? How was Morris’ perspective a fitting epilogue for the novel?