Dog and Butterfly: Letters Home by John Philip Riffice
Posted on July 31, 2013 by roxploration
First Published: 2013 by Bella Media Management
My copy: Supplied to me free of charge by the author, in return for an honest review
Memorable quote: “Taped to my closet door, though, was the very first note he ever left me. It was short, only two words in all, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Character counts, he wrote.”
“What did YOU do in the war, Daddy?” The phrase was introduced on a British propaganda poster by the parliamentary recruiting commission during World War 1, and has since become a cultural cliché. Yet the familiarity of the question belies the difficulty experienced by many men discussing their memories, not just of the First World War, but of any major conflict. However brave or heroic their actions, war is a world apart from the rest of daily life and for some veterans to discuss it not only risks reopening old wounds but also requires facing a language barrier of almost alien proportions. This novel works so well because it examines this important theme by grounding it so convincingly in the homely, everyday experiences of its characters’ lives in rural Oklahoma. For me, as a reader from the UK who has never been to the US, this setting felt like a world apart too, but one that could be adequately expressed; and, though simple and generally free from poetic embellishments, Riffice’s language, domestic detail and convincingly colloquial dialogue really transported me there.
The story concerns young Jimmy Freeland and his relationship with his Uncle Cam. Fallen upon hard times, Jimmy’s widowed mother is forced to accept her brother-in-law’s hospitality. Cam, who has never married, quickly becomes a surrogate father figure for Jimmy but even as he grows close to the boy he also maintains an air of reserve, rarely speaking about his past. It is only gradually that Cam’s story emerges: Jimmy’s first experience of a relationship breakup prompts Cam to remember the girl that first broke his own heart, while it is a speech at a sports-related social event that first reveals him to be a decorated hero of World War Two. The book is split in two: the first half, comprised of Jimmy’s experiences and the memories Cam reluctantly shares with him, raises a number of tantalising questions about Cam’s past, which the conclusion goes on to answer more directly as Jimmy finally gets to read the letters his uncle wrote from Europe during his years of deployment.
A lot of books have been written inspired by events in the Second World War and while I didn’t feel this one added anything especially unexpected to the genre, I did find Dog and Butterfly to be a consistently engaging read. There are a few stand out descriptions of haunting beauty – such as the moment Cam and his fellow soldiers surface from a foxhole amidst freshly swirling snow after an interlude of heavy shelling. But overall, it is not the language but the development of the characters that kept me reading. Riffice certainly understands the words of wisdom that Cam tapes to Jimmy’s wardrobe: “Character is important” and this book is really carried by the personalities of Jimmy and Cam, both likeable and believably rounded creations. The first section, seen though the eyes of a young Jimmy, is particularly successful for the way in which Jimmy’s social inexperience makes him miss certain things – such as the true reason his mother dislikes her job – that are obvious to the more mature reader. This nicely parallels the difficulty Cam experiences sharing his war tales with civilians who have been shielded from the horrors of conflict.
The novel also has a lot to say about the theme of fate. The idea that everything happens for a reason is an important one, and in this context I can see how the belief comes to be a crucial survival tactic, helping the men in the book to overcome heartbreak and horror. It is clearly a message that comes from the heart. At times, however, I felt this moral was overstated – and in a work that is so driven by a sense of everyday lived experience the more overt paragraphs of philosophising actually felt too much like authorial insertions and were unnecessary since the action speaks for itself and conveys this message powerfully enough already. This is a minor quibble however, and overall this is a breezy, enjoyable read that manages to pack an emotional punch without being cloying or overly sentimental. Certainly worth a look.