The first panel in A Blanket of Butterflies is set outside of The Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre, an actual building located in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada. The museum houses a collection, considered one of the best of northern native and early white settlement material in Canada, containing over 17,000 artifacts of traditional work of the Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, and Metis, as well as mission, trade, pioneer, and portage items. And, one mysterious Samurai suit of armor which was revealed in 1994 and had very little provenance: “Bought by Mr. Louis Bisson in China during the war and brought back to Canada upon his return.” The handwritten entry had been amended by scratching out the word China and replacing it with Japan. The story of the mystery circulated orally and soon caught the attention of the CBC with the result that a few more facts came to light. It was identified by experts as is a composite set, an amalgamation of pieces from different sets from the mid-Edo period, or the 18th or 19th century, with the diamond-shaped flower crest on the center of the chest piece identified as that of the Yonekura family, a branch of the Takeda Clan.
The museum is still compiling information about the suit and wants to learn more. At the same time, well-known author Richard Van Camp, originally from Fort Smith, heard about the armor from a friend and former security guard at the museum. “The whole question of how did a suit of armor end up in Fort Smith, NWT,” Van Camp said in an article for the CBC. “That mystery, that’s what drew me in and I had this image of a little boy going every day to see the Samurai suit of armour.”
In his story, Van Camp introduces his young character, Sonny, who is fascinated by the armor in the museum display. Sonny is there when Shinobu, a Japanese man, comes to claim the armor for his family. Upon discovering that the former curator had gambled away the sword to a local gang leader, Shinobu and Sonny go to retrieve it. A brutal fight scene resulting in a wounded Shinobu being cared for by Sonny’s grandmother, a midwife, a death comforter, and, even more importantly, a treasured storyteller. It is the power of stories that brings resolution for all of the main characters in the book. Although the beginning of the story is shadowed by violence, the main theme of the book is peacemaking through stories. It is also a tale of the injustice of appropriating objects significant to another culture, the importance of honoring one’s traditions, and the impact of global events on remote communities.
Illustrator Scott B. Henderson was specifically chosen by Van Camp to illustrate this semi-wordless story and his illustrative style was in the forefront of Van Camp’s writing of the book. The black-and-white illustrations are powerful, offering a commanding sense of the people, geography, and issues at stake in this fast-moving tale. Faces are especially expressive and the variety of panel composition add to the understanding of the context and content of a story about storytelling that is told with very little dialogue.
A Blanket of Butterflies is a great addition to a high school library’s graphic novel collection, a good choice as a supplemental novel for high school English classes, and certainly a must for any Indigenous studies class. While intended for readers in grades 9-12, the story will resonate with a variety of readers of all ages. The gang violence, however, although tempered by the power of story, may be too vehement for younger readers.
A Blanket of Butterflies
by Richard Van Camp
Art by Scott B. Henderson
HIghwater Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 15