Based on true biographies
By Nily Naiman
Key Themes: fiction, history, family story, global, emotions
This novel is based upon true events in the lives of the author and her family members.
The narrator, Lana, is three years old when she stands on a hill with her mother and sisters for the first time, waiting for butterflies to land on her. Thus Nily Naiman begins this sensual, emotional, and ever-surprising saga of a very special family. The complex narrative spreads over two lifetimes and four continents, over times of war and peace, and poverty and plenty.
The women of this novel are larger than life. Only at the age of 18 does Lana come to the realization that not everything has been known to her about her family, and she begins an adventurous journey in search of her roots and her identity. Her mother, Sara, a determined and passionate woman who found herself in the wilderness of Mongolia during the Second World War, relates a life story of exceptional bravery and turmoil. Lana’s two sisters are polar opposites as personalities, but each in her own way is fascinating and brings the reader to tears. Farah, an Arab woman who lives under the Israeli occupation is a symbol of strength and incredible pride in her identity. Lana’s captivating daughters each uniquely combine the attributes of sensitivity and courage. Lana herself lives through an extraordinary and unexpected series of events that bring forth all the special strengths that she has within her.
Although this complex tale is focused primarily in Mongolia it reaches throughout much of the world. Author Naiman is able to transmit the magical atmosphere of each locale that she describes, from the hard, constricted, narrow-minded climate of Israel, a tiny country at war, to the distant, open terrain of Mongolia, its mountains, lakes, deserts, and forests, and its open-minded people.
One thread of the narrative is an old belief that when a girl stands on a hill where butterflies are about, the number that land on her will foretell the number of husbands that she will have. The men in this book, the butterflies, are all interesting in their own right, sensitive, strong and caring. They supply the physical and emotional needs of the women and provide critical support in times of severe stress. But it is the women who are central.
Coping with the setbacks and crises of life is a major theme of the story. Both Lana and later her eldest daughter live through shocking events that cause them to retreat within themselves. They lose the capacity to speak or even utter a sound. The book explores in depth the phenomenon of post-traumatic muteness, the horrendous conscious fears and frustrations that accompany it, and the paradoxical and contradictory underlying reality that this kind of mental collapse temporarily frees the individual from her normal relationship with her surroundings, a convenient and all too enticing form of escape. This silence has a “language” of its own. It speaks, it cries, it shouts out in anger, all in the mind of the sufferer.
Through the experiences of Lana and her daughter the book describes not only the horrible anxiety and loneliness that are a part of post-traumatic muteness, but the exceptional strength and courage that must be brought to bear to fight one’s way out of the suffering and renew one’s relationship with the world. Of all the demonstrations of strength and determination in the course of the saga, the struggles of Lana and her daughter in this regard are perhaps the greatest examples.
About the Author
Born in Israel in 1953, Nily Naiman grew up among Holocaust survivors and their children. Israel of the 1950’s was a confused mix of conflicting cultures, traditions, and tragic personal histories, all grating against each other in a new society struggling to define itself. This was the bewildering brew into which she was born. Her work is inspired by her childhood memories of the stories of her parents and their contemporaries.
Only now has she begun writing down the pieces of her life that are incorporated into her fiction. Her first novel, “Ahuva”, set entirely in Israel, has been published in the U.S.
The hill was covered with wildflowers. I was three years old when mama brought me there with my sisters and said, “Stand still. Don’t move!”
My sisters and I stood silently, our hearts beating hard. I saw the butterflies flitting around, white and yellow stripes, from flower to flower, and scratched my head. My sister Esther shoved me and said, “Stand still, stupid!”
I saw one little baby butterfly circling around my head. It landed on top of me. “That’s one husband,” said my sister Bella. I sighed in relief. I would not remain an old maid. Then another butterfly landed on Esther’s shoulders. She gave a yell, “Mama, I will have a husband,” and mama said, “Shhh! be quiet. Don’t move.”
I could feel the little butterfly stretching its wings on my head,
And my feet started to hurt. I wanted to run around on the hill
And smell the flowers. I saw two butterflies chasing each other.
They came right in front of my nose. “Go,” I said, “I have a husband already, go to Bella!” but they both landed on my head, right next to the first one.
Bella was breathing heavily. “She will have three husbands, mama.”
“One minute, be still!” said mama. We stood there for a long time, but no more butterflies came to us. Bella started crying,
and mama soothed her, saying, “Calm down girl! We will try again another time,!” but Bella didn’t stop.
I ran and rolled from the top of the hill with Esther. She was saying, “You will have three husbands, God help you!”
“Shut up Esther! You are just mad, because I have more then you!” I stuck my tongue out at her and ran off.
My mama told us that it was a custom in her old country to stand in a field and count how many butterflies landed on you, and then you would know how many husbands you would have. She had been taking my older sisters again and again to the butterfly hill, and again and again had come up with the same result. Esther always had one butterfly landing on her, and Bella, who was the prettiest of all of us, had none.
That day was the first time my mama took me too, and as a three year old the only thing I knew was that I must have those butterflies landing on me or else my fate would be just horrible. You cannot live your life as a woman without a husband; that much I knew. Mama took me again and again after that day, and I always counted three butterflies on my head and felt terrible having such success, looking at Bella’s crying, angry face.
Mama injured her leg when she fled with her parents from the Nazis in the frozen fields of Russia. The Nazis invaded the entire area unexpectedly, and the family took a few bundles and started running north. Mama’s shoes slipped off in the dark, and when they had to cross the icy cold river to get to the other side, her leg froze. No matter what her parents tried to do, the leg was lifeless, and remained so.
Mama had dragged her foot ever since, and it was always hurting. Whenever the weather changed, or when she would walk too much or stand too long on her feet, mama was always massaging her foot and complaining of the intense pains.
Papa would come with his jeep and lift me way up in the air in his strong hands and say, “Hey, baby princess!”
I would yell with joy and then curl on his lap and say, “Papa, when I grow up I will come visit you every day with my three husbands.”
Papa would smile and say, “You sure you will be able to handle three?”
I would nod my head and say, “Papa that is my fate. Mama said so.”
Papa would look at mama and admonish her, “Why can’t you leave this nonsense in the old village; why drag the baby into it?” Papa was the only one who was not afraid to speak his mind to mama. Everyone else was wary of her sharp tongue. Mama used to say that she had not survived seven different hells in order to let anybody push her around.