Mary Alice Monroe learns a lesson from butterflies 

Monarch Metamorphosis

Mary Alice Monroe looks like a kid inside the Smithsonian's butterfly exhibit in Washington, D.C. Her eyes glisten as she watches hundreds of butterflies float aimlessly above her head, landing on the various flowering plants inside the museum's heated room.

"I've never seen so many exotic species," she exclaims, staring at a particularly large Swallowtail.

We caught up with Monroe on a recent trip to the district, where she happily planned an excursion to the temporary show. She says it is one of the best.

After filming some of the more impressive species for her website, Monroe makes her way to a display of chrysalises in the center of the hothouse. She points out the tiny green Monarch shells, which look more like pendants on a necklace than cocoons, and explains how butterflies match their temporary shells to the leaves or branches they attach to.

Over the past two years, Monroe has become a bit of an expert on the pretty winged creatures. She has worked her studies into her latest novel, aptly named The Butterfly's Daughter, set for a May 3 release.

For her faithful readers, the new obsession should come as no surprise. The butterfly is another in a long line of wildlife — from sea turtles to birds of prey to shrimp and sweetgrass — that have captured Monroe's attention and starred in her creatively penned works. It has become almost her own sub-genre: easy-reading fiction with narrative arcs that follow the life cycle of a given species.

And on top of the fictitious story line, she gingerly weaves in real social and environmental issues with a hint of activism, creating a moral fable of sorts for adults who enjoy a good beach read. In The Butterfly's Daughter, man-made threats to the Monarch's migration route became the root of the tale.

"The Monarch is the only insect that migrates like a bird or a whale, and that emotion of the migration intrigued me," Monroe says. "Then I found out that the migration across America was threatened, and that was it — I knew I had to tell a story."

And that's where Monroe's journalism background kicked in. On top of reading and talking to people about the creatures, she had to see them for herself. She joined the group Monarchs Across Georgia, and with other enthusiasts, she trekked down to Mexico to visit the Monarch sanctuaries where millions of the butterflies stay for the winter after their long migration. The butterflies nest high in the Oyamel trees in central Mexico, creating gigantic clusters that Monroe thought were bags of leaves at first glance.

"They kind of look like termite hives at first, these big bags, and what they are are thousands of Monarchs with their wings closed, covering these trees for as far as you can see," Monroe says.

When the sun would peek through the clouds, the Monarchs took flight. "It looked like orange confetti across the sky.

"You can't comprehend what you're seeing, there are so many," she adds. "It's spiritual. It moves you. And I knew that in my novel the goal is to bring that feeling to my readers."

Monroe conveys her experience through Luz, the 21-year-old protagonist. Believed to be an orphan after her father abandoned her at birth and her mother's death a few years later, Luz is raised by Abuela, her grandmother, in the suburbs of Michigan.

At the start of the novel, Luz is listless, working in a factory at near minimum wage to support her aging grandmother. She has few long-term aspirations and little connection to her extended family in Mexico. Her apathy toward her heritage troubles Abuela, who never has the funds or time to take her to the small town in the mountains of Mexico where her family has lived for generations. Just as it seems Abuela is finally determined to take Luz on the journey she has been planning for decades, the unthinkable happens. Abuela dies in her sleep, leaving Luz reeling and alone. Luz eventually finds solace in a lone Monarch, the type of butterfly her grandmother raised and often compared to the females in her family. She interprets the sighting as a message from her grandmother and decides to take the trip that they were unable to take together.

The remainder of the tale follows Luz as she trails the Monarchs' migration from Michigan to the giant sanctuaries in the Mexican mountains that she had heard about during her childhood. On the journey, Luz is forced into a metamorphosis — she must become independent and evolve into a confident woman. The allusion of Luz to the Monarchs can be too literal at times, however. The little orange voucho purchased by Abuela before her death serves as a cocoon for Luz, a reminder of the comfort of home and her childhood. And each butterfly sighting is labeled a sign from Abuela.

Yet the detail Monroe uses to illustrate the tale makes it more enjoyable. Many of the scenes and people she met along the way are included in the story. The young boy who leads the American visitors on horseback up the windy trails of the mountains was inspired by Monroe's own excursion.

Stacey, a hitchhiker who makes a brief appearance in the novel, is also based on a real person. A friend of Monroe told her the tale of a hitchhiker she picked up, whom they called Hollywood. When they eventually parted ways, she told the women, "You don't know where you're going, but you'll know when you get there."

"She yelled that out the window when she left, and I wrote that down," Monroe said. "You can't make up anything as good as real life."

Billy McCord, a Department of Natural Resources biologist who taught Monroe a lot about the species, is also included.

The tale is ultimately uplifting, and leaves the reader with a sense of acceptance and calm. Monroe hopes it also piques readers' interest in butterflies and conservation efforts. She is giving away bags of milkweed seeds on her book tour, hoping to inspire people to combat the illegal logging that has killed the plant that is the only place the Monarch lays its eggs.

"Not everyone can rehabilitate birds or be a turtle lady, but everyone can plant nectar flowers and milkweed in their gardens, and not spray insecticides. If you do, you'll see butterflies in your garden."

Monroe also hopes readers walk away with a renewed sense of strength and courage in the possibility of change.

"I'm a storyteller, and I hope that people are moved by the story first and foremost, but I hope they take away two things," Monroe says. "One is conservation and the other is the power of transformation, the capability of transformation, and metamorphosis in all of us."

Book Signings. Thurs. May 5, 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 7620 Rivers Ave. (843) 572-2322. Sat. May 7, 4 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 1716 Towne Centre Way. (843) 216-9756. Sat. May 14, 4 p.m. Waldenbooks, 120 Market St. (843) 853-1736.


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