________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 25. . . .March 4, 2016


A Blanket of Butterflies. (The Debwe Series).

Richard Van Camp. Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson.
Winnipeg, MB: Highwater Press/Portage & Main Press, 2015.
46 pp., trade pbk., $18.95.
ISBN 978-1-55379-548-3.

Subject Heading:
Graphic novels.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4




The opening page of A Blanket of Butterflies is an interesting montage of images: a modern structure housing the Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith, NWT; a young boy, Sonny, staring at a display case holding a suit of Samurai armour, the breastplate of which features a large butterfly blazon; and a fierce-looking man, equally transfixed by that artifact. The man is a Japanese named Shinobu, and he is in Ft. Smith to retrieve the suit which has belonged to his family for generations. But, there’s an item missing from the museum display: a sword which the museum’s previous manager gambled away to a local ne’er-do-well known as Benny the Bank. Shinobu is determined to have the sword back: “Our family’s sword was not his to give.” (p. 4) Despite advice to the contrary, Shinobu sets out to find Benny. However, as Shinobu leaves, the museum manager phones Benny to tell him about an unexpected visitor; Sonny overhears the telephone conversation and sets out to warn Shinobu. Although Shinobu is a stranger to Sonny, he trusts Shinobu implicitly because Shinobu’s hand bears the same butterfly tattoo seen on the samurai armour, and that butterfly is meaningful to Sonny.

     Approaching Benny’s home in Border Town, Shinobu is met by a barrage of arrows, followed by two thugs who stage a surprise attack. However, Shinobu is descended from generations of warriors and, in a dazzling display of martial arts skill, he vanquishes the two would-be ninjas despite having a couple of arrows embedded in his limbs. Unfortunately, Shinobu is no match for a giant known as Flinch, who appeared in van Camp’s earlier novel, Three Feathers, and who obviously has not learned the lesson of peaceful existence offered at the end of that story. Flinch finishes his assault by tossing Shinobu down a cliff. Luckily, Sonny finds Shinobu’s broken body by the side of the road, flags down a pick-up, and with the help of the three young people in the truck, transports Shinobu to his Granny’s place. As she removes Shinobu’s shirt, in preparation for bathing his wounds, Granny is frightened by the tattoos completely covering the man’s torso: an array of butterflies, as well as samurai-style motifs. She asks Sonny, “Is this a man or a devil?” Sonny replies, “He’s my friend.” (p. 17)

     Bathed, bandaged, and balmed by traditional medicines, Shinobu drifts into a deep sleep and, when he awakes, he walks into the living room, and shares tea and conversation with Granny and Sonny. When asked who he is, he replies, “A son trying to bring honour back to his family.” (p. 21) Shinobu is from Nagasaki, one of the two Japanese cities destroyed by the nuclear bombs dropped in August of 1945. Those bombs were loaded with uranium mined in Canada’s north. Granny then tells of a prophet from her village, a man named Ayah, who foretold the ruin that would come from nuclear bombardment and warned the Dene not to work in the mines and harvest the source of death. Cancer and other illness befell those men, and her village became known as “the village of widows”. (p. 24)

     Why is Shinobu so determined to retrieve the sword? The honour code of samurai culture is strong, and he desires to have it, not to fight anyone, but to “return what was taken from our family, before I start my own”. (p. 26) Shinobu’s great-great grandfather was one of greatest of the samurai sword makers, and the suit of armour and the sword both have a special power endowed by the light of a full moon.

     That evening, there will be a full moon, and Granny decides that she, Sonny, and Shinobu will reclaim the sword and will do so without fighting or violence. As they arrive at Benny’s place, his henchman, Torchy and Sfen, drop from a tree, ready to attack them from behind. Despite his injuries, Shinobu is ready to take them on. However, Granny has her own strength. Unimpressed by their show of force, she tells the men, “That’s enough. I delivered all of you into this world and I used to change your diapers. All of yours.” (p. 33), including the somewhat shame-faced Flinch.

     Benny dismisses her, but undeterred, she holds out the blanket she is carrying and states, “Now is the time for peaceful stories.” (p. 34) She tells the sad story of the death of Lila Rose, Benny’s grand-daughter who died of cancer at the age of six, unable to be saved by either modern or traditional medicine. As Lila approached the end of her short life, Granny asked her what she wants to be reincarnated as, suggesting that Lila return as a butterfly, who will signal her re-appearance by tickling Granny behind the ear and flying around her three times. Benny refuses to believe the story, but, by now, butterflies have appeared many times: in Shinobu’s tattoos, the samurai suit’s butterfly blazon, and in a butterfly which visited Sonny and Granny on the day that Shinobu arrived in Ft. Smith.

     Granny then presents Benny with the blanket, beautifully decorated with flowers, butterfly motifs, and a family portrait of a smiling, unscarred Benny, his partner, and a child. Overwhelmed, Benny falls to his knees and commands Torchy and Sfen to fetch the sword. As the sword is held out to him, Shinobu asks Benny the name of his late granddaughter; when Shinobu’s daughter is born, she will be named Lila Rose in her honour. With that exchange, a huge burden is lifted from the hearts of both men, and a great act of reconciliation has taken place.

     Before getting into the taxi waiting for him outside the museum, Shinobu unsheathes the sword, and exposes it to the full silvery light of the August new moon. Then, he takes leave of Granny and Sonny, and, as he does so, a butterfly appears, first to the three of them, and then, on the book’s final page, to Benny who holds the butterfly blanket as he thinks of his granddaughter.

     A Blanket of Butterflies is a graphic novel illustrated in black and white images by Scott B. Henderson who has done a masterful job of illustrating the story’s text as well as providing uncaptioned frames which move the story along swiftly. The two pages illustrating Granny’s re-telling of Ayah’s prophecy are a powerful depiction of the destruction wrought on both the Dene and Japanese communities. Many strands are woven together in this book: the injustice of appropriating objects significant to another culture, the impact of global events on remote communities, as well as the importance of honouring one’s traditions, and accepting peace and reconciliation, in whatever form it may be offered. The conclusion of Three Feathers, Van Camp’s previous graphic novel, offered hope that the young men of that story would choose a better path in life, In A Blanket of Butterflies, readers see that Flinch has fallen back into the world of lawlessness and violence. However, Sonny has been witness to his grandmother’s strength and Shinobu’s resilience, and perhaps, he will follow the path followed by both Granny and Shinobu, a path which honours family, tradition, and “peaceful stories”.

     The intended audience for the story is Grades 9-12, and I think that the book will really appeal to a variety of readers: young women will value Granny’s display of strength and compassion, male readers will like the “action” scenes, and readers of any ethnic or cultural background will see that the values upheld by Shinobu, Granny, and Sonny are universal. A Blanket of Butterflies is a great addition to a high school library’s graphic novel collection, a good choice as a supplemental novel for high school English classes, and certainly a must for any Aboriginal studies class.


Before her retirement, Joanne Peters was a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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