Study Guide

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

by John Murray

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

An Australian by birth, Dr. John Murray went to the United States in 1990 to study international health at The John Hopkins University, after which he worked in the Epidemic Intelligence Service for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Affected by his experiences traveling to numerous developing countries in Africa and Asia, and convinced that medical doctors are uniquely positioned to become writers because they often hear things that people do not tell anyone else, Murray took time off from the rigors of his work as a medical epidemiologist to endure the quite different rigors of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where, presumably, he wrote these eight stories as workshop assignments. After the stories were rejected by several magazines, his agent found a publisher for them, HarperCollins, who heavily promoted Murray’s medical background, his experience working in developing nations, and his immigrant status.

Some of Murray’s stories inform the reader about conditions in poor African nations, and others focus on immigrants coping with cultural displacement. In spite of the information they contain on the phylogeny of various insects or the physiology of a brain tumor, in narrative structure, character creation, thematic development, and prose style, these previously unpublished stories are examples of like commercial popular fiction rather than serious works of literature.

Murray has said that he always wanted to be a writer, imitating books he read when he was six or seven. After reading works by Rudyard Kipling or Agatha Christie, he would get his father’s typewriter out and write in the style of the author he had been reading. Many of the stories in his debut collection also bear resemblances to writers he has perhaps read more recently. “The Hill Station,” about a woman microbiologist who returns to her homeland, India, to lecture on cholera, is similar to the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, but it does not have her lyrical style.

The title story, a multilayered tale about a surgeon too scientifically organized to take a chance on having a child, is similar to the stories of Andrea Barrett, but it is not informed by her incisive intelligence. “Watson and the Shark,” about an American trauma surgeon in Africa who comes to realize that real life is “a dream,” has the same context as stories of Thom Jones, but it is missing his infectious manic voice.

In “The Hill Station,” Elizabeth Dinakar, an expert in infectious diseases, goes to India, where her parents were born, after being rejected by her married lover. Pregnant, she has come to train local doctors in microbiology. Feeling lost and deserted, she decides to spend some time traveling in India after her work is finished. When her bus is held up by an accident, she meets an Indian man who, in an abrupt and businesslike fashion, lists his assets and proposes to her. The story ends with the narrator pondering that years later, Dinakar will tell her daughter about this particular morning in India when she met the man who would be her daughter’s father. Beneath the somewhat exotic descriptions of India and the fascinating descriptions of disease, this is basically a simple story about a woman trying to cope with being pregnant and alone. (She even looks up the word “cope” in the dictionary.)

“All the Rivers of the World” is a story about a man named Vitek Kerolak who goes to Florida to bring back his father, who has run off to find a more meaningful life. He is living with a woman named Chika Portini, who has had harrowing experiences in Africa but is stronger for the risks she has taken. Vitek’s father insists that she is the best thing that has ever happened to him. After Chika lectures Vitek about the importance of overcoming his own fears, Vitek, who has always been afraid of water because his brothers drowned years before, jumps into the ocean, feeling free in a way he cannot describe and knowing that he will not be taking his father home. The story ends with Vitek imagining he is in Africa in a church described by Chika, holding an emaciated child up to the sky in Lion King fashion and telling him to watch the stars.

The title story is the longest and most elaborate because it deals with two narrative threads simultaneously. The modern thread focuses on an...

(The entire section is 1757 words.)