Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Butterfly Clues: Kate Ellison

Written by Kalia Armbruster
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A young adult novel is a delicate thing. Inhabiting that particular type of thinking between child and adult can be a struggle for authors and readers alike. Likewise, a good mystery novel requires a certain kind of balancing act. When and how clues are revealed must be done with an expert hand so as not to knock the whole thing over, giving the game away too soon. In her debut novel The Butterfly Clues, Kate Ellison gives us a YA mystery that manages to walk both of these lines quite well, delivering both heart and intrigue in a moving story about a girl looking for answers. 

A young adult novel is a delicate thing. Inhabiting that particular type of thinking between child and adult can be a struggle for authors and readers alike. Likewise, a good mystery novel requires a certain kind of balancing act. When and how clues are revealed must be done with an expert hand so as not to knock the whole thing over, giving the game away too soon. In her debut novel The Butterfly Clues, which was just released on Valentine's Day, Kate Ellison gives us a YA mystery that manages to walk both of these lines quite well, delivering both heart and intrigue in a moving story about a girl looking for answers.

The Butterfly Clues centers on Penelope "Lo" Marin dealing with the death of her brother, and the resulting devastation it has wreaked on her family. Over a year after Oren disappeared, Lo’s parents are all but absent, leaving Lo to deal with her obsessive-compulsive behaviors; tendencies that have only magnified and caused her to feel entirely alone in an unfeeling world. When the novel begins, Lo is perilously close to a murder scene. She becomes obsessed with finding out who killed this girl, a stripper called Sapphire, and why. This obsession draws her away from her suburban haven and into a world called "Neverland" in the gritty, forgotten streets of Cleveland. It is here that she meets Flynt, a mysterious yet charming street artist, and begins to unravel the story of Sapphire as well as confront her own guilt over the passing of her brother.

While elements of the story may seem trite—the seedy underbelly, the oddly short nicknames, the socially awkward heroine who has a hard time believing she is beautiful—Ellison’s lyrical style, and Lo’s fully realized voice save the day. The novel is narrated by Lo in the present tense, giving each moment a kind of tension and immediacy that keeps the mystery taut. Each of her tics and all of her rituals are narrated in precise detail, forcing the reader to live in her skin and feel her embarrassment any time someone notices her tapping or muttering. Lo's drive to solve this mystery is born out of the connection she feels to Sapphire, with whom she occasionally communes through small objects that might have meant very little in Sapphire’s life, but that now take on a new meaning in Lo’s careful hands.

Ellison’s strengths lie in creating a world, giving her characters believable and distinct voices, and infusing her narration with a kind of magic and lyricism not always found in today’s young adult fiction. And so the most compelling moments are the emotional truths Lo comes to face, and not the thriller-esque scenes of undercover investigation, or clumsily discovered clues. That’s not to say that the narrative is uninteresting or completely transparent, simply that it is not the best part of this novel. The plot loses a bit of steam by the end of the novel, giving us some contrived moments including Lo’s confrontation with Sapphire’s killer, as well as an unnecessary minor triumph over a high school mean girl at prom. However, I kept reading because I came to care about Lo, and this fact alone makes me hope for more from Kate Ellison. If you allow yourself to buy into the premise, Ellison’s strong narrative voice and poetic choices will compel you to read on.

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