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The Butterfly Cabinet

The Butterfly Cabinet

A Novel

  • reading group guide
Vivid, mysterious and unforgettable, The Butterfly Cabinet is Bernie McGill’s engrossing portrayal of the dark history that intertwines two lives. Inspired by a true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family at the end of the nineteenth century, McGill powerfully tells this tale of two women whose lives will become upended by a newly told secret.

The events begin when Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges and realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for over seventy years: what really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young woman. It is to Charlotte’s would-be niece, Anna—pregnant with her first—that Maddie will tell her story as she nears the end of her life in a lonely nursing home in Northern Ireland.

The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie’s story and the prison diaries of Charlotte’s mother, Harriet, who had been held responsible for her daughter’s death. As Maddie confesses the truth to Anna, she unravels the Ormonds’ complex family history, and also details her own life, marked by poverty, fear, sacrifice and lies. In stark contrast to Maddie is the misunderstood, haughty and yet surprisingly lyrical voice of Harriet’s prison diaries, which Maddie has kept hidden for decades. Motherhood came no more easily to Harriet than did her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. Proud and uncompromising, she is passionate about riding horses and collecting butterflies to store in her prized cabinet. When her only daughter, Charlotte, dies, allegedly as the result of Harriet’s punitive actions, the community is quick to condemn her and send her to prison for the killing. Unwilling to stoop to defend herself and too absorbed in her own world of strict rules and repressed desires, she accepts the cruel destiny that is beyond her control even as, paradoxically, it sets her free.

The result of this unusual duet is a haunting novel full of frightening silences and sorrowful absences that build toward the unexpected, chilling truth.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 240 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451611618 | 
  • July 2011
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The Confession of Maddie McGlade

A haunting, unforgettable story—based on real events in late 19th-century Ireland—of two women linked by a tragic, 70-year secret: what really happened on the last day in the life of the 4-year-old daughter of an aristocratic family.

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Read an Excerpt

Maddie McGlade
RESIDENT, ORANMORE NURSING HOME PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND
8 SEPTEMBER 1968


Anna. You’re the spit of your mother standing there—Florence, God rest her—and you have the light of her sharp wit in your eyes. Give me your hand till I see you better. There’s not much change on you, apart from what we both know. Ah, you needn’t look at me like that. Sure, why else would you be here? I know by the face of you there’s a baby on the way, even if you’re not showing. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, the way the past has no interest for the young till it comes... see more

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Butterfly Cabinet includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Bernie McGill. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the
book

Introduction

When Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges, she realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for decades: What really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed in her youth? The Butterfly Cabinet unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie’s story—as told to Anna, Charlotte’s would-be great-niece—and the prison diaries of Charlotte’s mother, Harriet, who was held responsible for her daughter’s death.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. How did you feel about the dual-narrator structure of the book? Did you want to hear more from Anna? Were there any other characters whose narration you would have liked to read as well?

2. What parts of the book took you most by surprise? What were your favorite moments?

3. Who do you think was the most conflicted chara see more

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