In a "note from the author" tacked on to the end of her new novel, The Butterflies of Grand Canyon, Flagstaff-based Margaret Erhart explains that the book arose from "a need to express" her "appreciation for the incredible landscape of the Grand Canyon."
The canyon—at once romantic and scary—indeed provides a compelling backdrop in Erhart's fifth novel, an ambitious tale of love, marriage and crime. While this story is savory at many distinct moments, it is ultimately disjointed, thanks to an overabundance of plots, subplots and interloping characters—but those moments do offer a somewhat profound study of the nature of marriage.
Somewhere near the center of the tale is the young Jane Merkle, 25 and recently married to the much-older Morris, and set off in the summer of 1951 from St. Louis to Flagstaff, where her brother-in-law Oliver and his wife, Dotty, live; Oliver collects butterflies for a living. Jane finds quickly that the Arizona heat, the comfort of blue jeans and the occasional beer in the afternoon suit her; she also finds herself thinking less and less of her miserly husband and more and more of a young ranger, the regretfully named Euell Wigglesworth. As she wrestles with temptation, she becomes curious about the clearly strained relationship between Dotty and Oliver (and mysterious correspondence between Dotty and, well, someone who isn't her husband).
Meanwhile, a pair of female botanists, Lois Cutter and Elzada Clover, arrive at the canyon rim, hoping to work but instead finding themselves trying to help their elderly, crotchety friend Emery Kolb, who has had the unfortunate experience of having a skeleton turn up on his property—a skeleton with a bullet hole in the back of its skull. The mystery rears its head throughout the rest of the novel, intertwining nearly all of the main characters and exposing riffs, both past and present.
The Butterflies of Grand Canyon contains glimpses of fact, mostly in the form of characters named after real people but with little in common with their actual histories. The botanists Clover and Cutter were in real life among the first women to make it down the canyon; in this novel, they help solve the mystery of the skeleton—which was also real, though the story of how it came to its location is entirely made up.
As enticing as adultery, an unsolved death and tanned young things exploring the beautiful desert might seem, Erhart's book moves around too quickly to truly engage. (Every chapter might as well start with "meanwhile.") The book longs for a central narrative, or character, at least. Jane does well for a while, but then everybody gets caught up in trying to figure out who the dead man is, and then suddenly Dotty is perhaps having an affair, and we're meeting the town's switchboard operator and learning of a secret crush between the botanists ... so when it turns out that the dead man does have a very significant connection with one of the main characters, not enough time is spent with this character to incite in the reader any sympathy, or consequently any interest.
To her immense credit, Erhart has an enchanting lyricism in her writing and a gift for observation. Often, these combine to offer compelling insight into things both banal ("Unlike English, which is spoken from the head by a well-groomed jury and judge, Italian roams here and there across a countryside, drinking and carousing") and weighty: "It eclipsed the nuptial vows, the scratchy kiss Morris dutifully planted on her cheek at the altar (she had anticipated a kiss on the lips and stood there like a beached fish, smacking the air)."
Indeed, one of the book's strengths is that it is a very candid and nuanced portrait of marriage—or troubled marriage, at least. In a delicate yet encompassing way, it reveals to the unmarried—and the happily married, perhaps—why it is that even in very difficult times, rife with betrayal and the sheer loss of attraction, some couples want to stick it out. It plumbs the depths of human attachment and finds reason to be inspired by it. And when the last string snaps, and two people do go their separate ways, it identifies the strength in the lonely soul to save itself.
In this way, The Butterflies of the Grand Canyon is a success. Erhart doesn't need a skeleton with a bullet hole to draw us in—the living, breathing, regular people are alluring enough.