Book Report: Flutter of hope
Portland author Rene Denfeld remembers being a homeless kid and finding her way into the library. Her world opened up.
"I was welcome. No one said go away or get the hell out. The librarians there smiled at me," Denfeld said.
So, she can relate to what she calls the "epidemic" of homelessness in our city, and is certainly qualified to write and talk about it.
Her new book, "The Butterfly Girl" ($26.99, Harper), is inspired by her days as a homeless child.
There will be a book launch for "The Butterfly Girl" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.
The Tribune caught up with Denfeld to discuss:
Tribune: What can people expect at Powell's on Tuesday?
Denfeld: I wish I could promise butterflies! But it will just be me, and lots of audience participation. I'll be reading a little from the new novel, and talking about life, challenges and how we survive. There's going to be time for questions, and the whole thing will wrap up in an hour. Then we're going to probably go to a local bar and celebrate.
Tribune: The writer Margaret Atwood recently described your new book as "a heartbreaking, finger-gnawing and yet ultimately hopeful novel by the amazing Rene Denfeld." How did it feel to receive this praise?
Denfeld: I'm still reeling from it. "The Butterfly Girl" was inspired by my own experiences as a homeless girl, back in the early 1980s. I spent a lot of time in the downtown library. I used to dream someday I might be a writer, and tell stories that save lives, too. I'm a longtime fan of Margaret Atwood, and the idea that she would praise my work — well, wow. It feels like the most magical, redemptive full circle possible.
Tribune: In what ways has Portland informed your fiction?
Denfeld: I like to show the Oregon most of us live in, which is not the life of privileged ease depicted so often. The Oregon I grew up in was a place defined by the working class, with indigenous peoples and a history of oppression.
One of the gifts of growing up in Portland was all the wilderness even in the city. You can be poor here and still have parks to play in and wildlife to see. Another gift of living in Portland is the city epitomizes the human ability to be more than one thing at once. It is a place of astonishing beauty and treacherous wilderness, a state that can be progressive and yet cruel — there are more prisons and jails here than colleges — and, I think, a state that is grappling with change.
I set "The Butterfly Girl" mostly in Portland, though it is a fictionalized version of the city. Readers will probably pick up on some of the ways I changed local establishments.
Tribune: "The Butterfly Girl" is your second fictional work featuring the dogged investigator Naomi, who has lost her own sister. How much of your personal work as a private investigator, foster parent and victim's advocate went into the making of this character? You both like to box, for instance, but where do you and Naomi part ways?
Denfeld: A lot of my life experiences have gone into my fiction. Not just being a street kid, but my years working public defense, my job as an investigator, and my passion as a foster parent. But I think it is important for a writer to create characters that are independent of us. They have to have autonomy. They have to be able to make their own mistakes.
I wanted Naomi to be her own person. I see her as completely different than myself. Have you ever had the experience of reading a novel and suspecting the writer was just writing a new improved version of themselves as the main character? If I was going to do that Naomi would have been 5 feet 7 with blond hair.
Tribune: Your book is about a street girl, Celia, who is being hunted by a predator. Celia retreats to the downtown Multnomah County Library. And a memory of butterflies offers her some comfort and protection in times of pain and stress.
Portland has so many young people in our streets now, and things appear to be very broken. What one or two things would you do to improve the lives of homeless youth if you were mayor of Portland? What about average citizens, what can they do?
Denfeld: We have an epidemic of homelessness, and hidden in that vast population are a lot of children. They are terribly victimized on the streets. If I were mayor of Portland, I'd look at how impossible it has become for working people to survive.
I was able to escape the streets myself by getting a fast food job and a cheap apartment. That same apartment is now a million-dollar loft. We've destroyed the paths out of poverty and homelessness. So, housing is one.
Another issue that must be dealt with is mass incarceration. We've not only imprisoned millions of parents — leaving their kids homeless — we have imprisoned many children themselves, often for petty charges. One in four Americans now has a criminal record. That means one in four Americans has a hard time getting a job or housing.
I think there is a lot we all can do. Advocate for more funding for programs serving homeless youth. Push for more funding for foster parents like myself so we can take in kids. Help spread the word about the need for foster parents. Volunteer in your schools and neighborhoods so you can intervene and help children before they become homeless.
Tribune: Your material is often hard to read, but it's also redemptive. What drives you? What are your sources of strength?
Denfeld: Sometimes people say my novels are about hard things. But, I can't imagine a story that isn't. Life brings many challenges. We all face loss, grief, sadness. We all make terrible mistakes. We all long for love.
I think stories help us realize we are not alone in this world. Books bring us together. I think there is a great deal of magic in this world. Maybe that's the purpose of life, to find beauty in the struggle. My greatest source of strength is my love for my kids, and my love for humankind. I feel like I was put on this planet to love others. At least, it brings me great joy.
Tribune: At the end of "The Butterfly Girl" you thank librarians. How did they help you?
Denfeld: I'll never forget climbing the stairs of the downtown Portland library as a homeless kid. I was grungy, I was filthy, and I probably smelled to high heaven. But when I walked in that library, I was welcome. No one said go away or get the hell out. The librarians there smiled at me. They helped me find more books by my favorite authors — and I was always finding new favorite authors — and they let me stay as long as I wanted. I often stayed until they closed.
There was one librarian in particular I remember. She was elderly and I am sure is long gone, which is sad to me now because I'd like to go back and thank her. She always said hello and goodbye to me. One day she reached under her desk and handed me some food. I never forgot that. It meant everything that someone showed they cared.
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