Tolstoy famously wrote that “All happy families are alike”, but John Philip Riffice’s novel Dog and Butterfly proves that all good rules also have their exceptions. It’s a novel about a family that is, in general, very happy. The love between Jimmy and his mother and his Uncle Cam is tangible from the first page to the last. And yet it’s a very distinct, interesting family, with a story that’s worth telling.
I think it’s much harder to write a book like this. Fiction tends to feed on conflict, and as I was reading this book I kept expecting the conflict to appear. When Jimmy’s father died and he and his mother went to live with Uncle Cam, I expected the uncle to be abusive or controlling. When Uncle Cam died and left behind a box of letters, I expected them to reveal a deep, dark secret. But none of that happened.
Bad things do happen in the book, of course, like the two deaths I just mentioned. There’s also poverty, and war, and failed romances, but none of it is sufficient to loosen the strong bonds between the main characters.
The conflict in the book is of a subtler kind than I’d expected. It’s largely a conflict of human beings with fate, and the reason it doesn’t seem like much of a conflict is that the happiest characters in the book are the ones who accept their fate rather than fighting against it. Uncle Cam gets injured in World War Two and loses his chance at a great career in American football, on top of losing the woman he loved, but instead of raging against his fate he accepts it, realising that it simply opens up other opportunities, like the chance to bring up his nephew.
Most of us, of course, don’t have Uncle Cam’s attitude. We thrash around and flail against our fate, trying every trick in the book to get what we want. In this sense we are like the dog of the title, chasing after the butterfly because it’s the one thing we can’t ever seem to catch.
The fatalistic philosophy of “Everything happens for a reason” is a strong theme of the book. It’s stated by various characters in slightly different ways, and plays a strong part in the development of the plot, especially the ending.
Frankly I don’t buy this philosophy at all. I think it’s a corruption of simple causality. Everything has a cause, yes, but that doesn’t mean it has a reason. It’s easy to look back and see cause and effect in action and say, “Oh, it had to happen that way.” But it didn’t have to – it just did. It could have happened another way, with different effects.
I suppose it comes down to faith, or lack thereof. Believing that causes are actually reasons implies the existence of a man behind the curtain, directing our fates towards some higher purpose. To me that concept is deeply depressing, because it reduces us to the role of characters in some divine epic novel, but the funny thing is that I’ll bet the last time someone told you everything happens for a reason, they were trying to cheer you up after something really shitty just happened.
Anyway, the good thing is that you don’t have to buy the fatalism to enjoy the book. In good novels, after all, everything does happen for a reason. The novelist arranges his characters and his plot to tell the story he wants. Riffice does a surprisingly good job of weaving a compelling story out of the unpromising materials of happiness and fatalistic acceptance, and so this book ends up being a very satisfying read, whether or not you subscribe to its premise.