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Butterflies Dance in the Dark

by Beatrice MacNeil

In this debut novel from playwright Beatrice MacNeil, little Mari-Jen Delene is raised in a strictly Catholic village in Cape Breton in the early 1950s. There she is exposed to violence, loss, and superstitions, experiences that haunt her entire childhood and later threaten her sanity as an adult.

Almost anyone of interest in the village of Sainte Noir is marginalized by the church community. Mari-Jen has a learning disability, which the stereotypically cruel Mother Superior dismisses as a sign of a hopeless “retard,” and takes as justification to mistreat and alienate the girl at school. A product of a fatherless family, headed up by a superstitious Catholic mother with a penchant for fighting both household dirt and sinners, Mari-Jen finds little affection or positive stimulation at home either.

MacNeil’s dialogue is particularly clever during the rapid-fire discussions in Mother Superior’s office, where Mari-Jen is asked to answer for the state of her impoverished and illegitimate family. Here her true intelligence and wit is revealed to the reader – though not to the Mother Superior. But as Mari-Jen grows older, she is increasingly disturbed by voices and images of her violent uncle and her protective twin brothers, who moved away years before. The depth of the narrative seamlessly mirrors her inner state, making the line between reality and psychological hauntings as unclear to the reader as it is to little Mari-Jen.

Reading about ugly familial relations and school-sanctioned brutality from a child’s perspective can be heavy slogging, but Mari-Jen’s inner life is so vivid and compelling it’s hard not to get drawn in.