"Dream Lives of Butterflies" by Jaimee Wriston Colbert


“There’s an Indian legend that if you capture a butterfly and whisper a wish to it, the butterfly cannot reveal the wish to anyone but the Great Spirit, who hears, sees and knows all. In gratitude for giving the beautiful butterfly its freedom, the Great Spirit grants its wish…”
–from Dream Lives of Butterflies

The characters in Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s novel-in-stories are not “happy people with happy problems” (the premise of most TV sitcoms). They are troubled souls who struggle at the margins of society, looking for a place to stay, or a garden patch in the city, or respite from the pains of war. “Dream Lives of Butterflies” features a cast of marginal human wrecks, and while they may be far from any place where they would be truly at home Colbert’s characters are still striving. Their stories are sad and funny; we want them to pull through.

The locale that confines many of these people is a housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. There is Marybeth, expecting a personal visit from Jesus, whom she believes waits outside her window. The manager’s son (as he is known in the book – he doesn’t like his name), who has returned reluctantly to St. Louis from the woods of Maine, sent on an errand by his father to evict a pregnant girl named Neville. And there’s Pablo, an Irish kid with a Spanish name who might be the father of Neville’s unborn child.

“Pablo makes a cluttery sound in his throat, clearing it as if he’s about to make a speech, then in a voice that’s flat and hard and suddenly very grown up, like he’s already gone to college, had a work life and come out of it all on some other side, far away from this St. Louis, under these low-rent stairs, he says: The way I see it, in this life you’re either a deserter or the one who gets deserted. He swivels full around and stares at me straight. So the thing is, Neville, I guess I don’t know yet which I am.”
–from Dream Lives of Butterflies

But not all the persons in these stories suffer from lack of accomplishment. Julia is a biologist who is living in St. Louis while she teaches at a local university and cares for an aging mother who seems to be descending into dementia. Julia is an expert on butterflies, a passion that began during her childhood in Hawai’i. In the title story of “Dream Lives of Butterflies”, Julia is struggling with depression and finds her contact with students to be unrewarding. “Writing books is one thing, it’s private and you don’t have to dress for it,” she tells herself. “I became a naturalist because I like nature, something I’ve always believed functions more rationally, more naturally, without people.” Butterflies bring lightness and beauty to her life.

Julia may not be strictly autobiographical but her life parallels the author’s. Jaimee Wriston Colbert was born in Hawai’i, she has studied entomology, lived in Maine, worked as a fashion model, was a Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and is now an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Binghamton University. Among her writing courses at BU are “Loving the Unlovable – A Character Study” and a class in technique and style called “Writing the Wild”. She is recipient of the 1997 Willa Cather Fiction Award for her novel-in-stories “Climbing the God Tree” and her 1994 collection of short stories, “Sex, Salvation and the Automobile” won the Zephyr Prize. Several of the stories that were woven into “Dream Lives of Butterflies” appeared first in prestigious literary journals, including Prairie Schooner and Green Mountains Review.

Jaimee Wriston Colbert joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to read from “Dream Lives of Butterflies” and tell about her literary world and her work.

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