In The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron, Sera James owns and manages an art gallery in Manhattan. For years she has been looking for a painting she saw as a child which held special meaning for her. She has finally found at least a copy of it, but hopes it will lead to finding the original. The owner, William Hanover, refuses to sell but wants to hire Sera because he also wants to find the original, but for very different reasons. They develop a relationship, but Sera is reluctant to open her heart again after having been left at the altar by her fiance two years ago. Unraveling the mystery of the painting at first brings them closer together but then suddenly brings a sharp division between them.
The painting portrays a young woman with piercing eyes, a shaved head, and a number tattooed on her wrist holding a violin. Cambron switches back and forth between the present day and Sera’s situation to the 1940s and the story of the woman in the painting, Adele von Braun, revealing more of Adele’s story in both narratives.
Adele’s father was a high-ranking official in the Third Reich, and she was a well-known violinist nicknamed “Austria’s sweetheart.” She loved a cellist named Vladimir, but her father would not sanction their relationship since Vladimir was only the son of a merchant. Adele kept seeing Vladimir in secret and eventually learned that he was part of a network that smuggled Jews out of the country to safety. Adele had hidden Jewish friends of her own that she secretly brought supplies to, but when she tried to help them escape, she was discovered, arrested, and sent to Auschwitz. There she became part of the prison orchestra, made to play every day as the prisoners were sent out to work, during executions, and occasionally at a Nazi social event. While she felt her spirit dying, her friend tried to help her see that there could be beauty and service to God even in such a place.
God is here. He sees. He knows what is happening in this place.
This, child, is our worship. To live and survive and play to God from the depths of our souls. This is the call that binds us. When we worship in the good times, it brings God joy. But worship in the midst of agony?…That is authentic adoration of our Creator.
One day we will be free. And we become free by living despite what they do to us. We live by working, and we work for God.
I had known that their were musicians among those in WWII prison camps who were made to play for the Nazis. And I knew that the Nazis had confiscated a lot of art during those years. But I hadn’t known that there were many paintings and other art by the prisoners themselves discovered after the camps were liberated – over 1,600 pieces in “partially destroyed warehouses and old barracks of Auschwitz,” according to the author’s note at the end. Those pieces still survive even now, though many of the artists are unknown. As one character muses in the story,
She told herself that to have something of worth in a world full of chaos was the very definition of beauty. It felt like a spiritual liberation that couldn’t be silenced. These prisoners, the ones who painted or wrote poetry or played in the orchestra – they refused to let that spirit die. And this, she decided, is why the heart creates.
God plants the talent and it grows, sustained by a spirit-given strength to endure, even in the midst of darkness. It thrives in the valleys of life and ignores the peaks. It blooms like a flower when cradled by the warmth of the sun. It remains in a hidden stairwell in a concentration camp. It grows, fed in secret, in the heart of every artist.
I enjoyed both Sera’s and Adele’s stories and the themes of God’s presence in suffering and the need to create. This is Cambron’s first novel, and it has deservedly won many awards. My overactive internal editor stumbled over just a few minor places where I felt the writing was a little awkward, but I’m not even going to go into them because overall this was a gripping, fascinating, heart-breaking, yet beautiful story.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)