Steel Butterflies by Elizabeth B. Splaine Genre: YA/ Women's Historical WWII Fiction
Deadly secrets & destructive, unintended consequences are unearthed in this coming-of-(s)age story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage girl and a former WWII spy.
Some truths are best left unspoken.
Ebony Dobbs has problems: unruly hair, not fitting in with the popular kids, figuring out how to pay for college…and a secret she’s buried so deeply even she doesn’t know the truth. A kick-butt best friend Connor Leibovitz, uses his computer genius to dig into a new secret...
Ebony reluctantly accompanies her mother on a home health visit, meeting Madame Celeste DeWit, a 97-year-old with a closet full of skeletons from WWII. As Ebony learns the truth about Madame’s wartime exploits, she comes to terms with her own past, realizing she and Madame share more than they differ.
When Connor uncovers information that implicates Madame’s estate manager in a plot to steal the old woman’s fortune, the teenagers launch a campaign to protect her, even as Madame’s past barrels into the present, threatening to destroy everything in its path.
Inspired by real people and places, Steel Butterflies will have you marveling at the beautiful simplicity of true friendship, as well as the courage of women who come face-to-face with determining their future.
“Alright. Enough seriousness. I promised you a story about the first time I drove an automobile.”
The tension broken, Jean stepped forward with her medical bag and knelt next to Madame’s wheelchair. She exchanged a relieved look with Ebony, then went to work on Madame’s leg. Ebony felt giddy as she plopped herself on the overstuffed pink couch, hugged a pillow, and folded her coltish legs under her derrière. “I’m ready.”
Madame grinned. Her entire face lifted, and her eyes took on an impish quality. “It was 1943. Stefan had been gone over a year, and my work was now overseen by another man named Michael, a tall, handsome, young American who gave me my code name.”
“You had a code name? That’s frickin’ cool!”
Madame pulled back a bit and tilted her head. “Excuse me?”
Ebony twisted her mouth in embarrassment. “I mean, it is kind of cool, don’t you think?”
Madame smirked. “I suppose it is…frickin’ cool.”
Ebony laughed out loud. “Yeah, it is! What was your code name?”
**Also by the author in the same genre**
Swan Song by Elizabeth B. Splaine Genre: YA/ Women's Historical WWII Fiction
Ursula Becker's operatic star is on the rise in Nazi Berlin...until she discovers that she is one-quarter Jewish, a mischling of the second degree. Although Hitler is aware of her lineage, her popularity and exquisite voice protect her and her family from persecution. As Ursula's violin-prodigy half-sister comes of age, she comes to the attention of the Führer, who welcomes the awestruck teenager into his elite, private circle.
When William Patrick Hitler arrives in Germany and is offered employment by his doting Uncle Adolf, a chance encounter with Ursula leads to a romantic relationship that further shields the young diva from mistreatment. But for how long?
Restrictions on Hitler's perceived enemies tighten, and Ursula is ordered to sing at Hitler's Berghof estate. There she throws down a gauntlet that unleashes the wrath of the vindictive megalomaniacal leader. Fearing for her life, Ursula and Willy decide to emigrate to England. But as the ship is about to sail, Ursula disappears. Desperately hoping that Ursula is still alive, Willy crosses the globe in an effort to find her, even as his obsessive uncle taunts him, relishing in the horror of the murderous cat-and-mouse game.
“Hitler. The name is Hitler. And who is this exquisite young lady I see before me?”
The man turned and fixed his dark blue eyes on Ursula. His chestnut brown hair was combed straight back and held in place with a generous amount of pomade. He angled his head and offered her an enigmatic smile.
She had the feeling they’d met before. “What did you say your name was?”
The man approached her and gently took her hand. After kissing it and commenting on her alabaster skin, he met her gaze. “I’m William Patrick Hitler, but my friends call me Willy.”
Ursula pursed her lips. “Any relation to—“
“The Führer? Yes, but please don’t hold it against me.”
Ursula’s discerning eyes narrowed like a cat. “You are not from Germany.”
“I am not. I was born in Ireland and grew up in England.”
Ursula nodded. That explained his peculiar accent. “And you are here because…?”
The maestro cleared his throat. “Ursula, I am certain Herr Hitler doesn’t need to tell us why he came to Germany or to our humble opera house.”
Still openly staring at Ursula, Willy waved his hand in the maestro’s direction. “It’s fine, good man. I don’t mind a woman who speaks so directly. In point of fact, I rather enjoy it. I am in Germany because my father, the Führer’s half-brother, lives here and I don’t have the opportunity to see him very much. Additionally, I’m now employed by the Reichskreditbank and have taken up residence in this beautiful city. As for why I’m in this astounding opera house—" He swept his arms wide and looked around the cavernous space trimmed in gold relief. “I came to show my appreciation for the maestro’s talent and attention to detail.”
The maestro stood taller and bowed his head in thanks before glancing at Ursula. “You are aware, Herr Hitler, that Fräulein Becker sang the role of Gretl in the production that you attended.”
He nodded curtly. “I am aware, yes.”
“I am sure that you would agree that she did an outstanding job in the role.”
“She was enjoyable, to be sure.”
It wasn’t his words. It was the manner in which he’d stated them that made Ursula’s blood rise. She had received nothing but positive reviews regarding her performance, both in person and in print. To be receiving a mediocre report from an egotistical anglophile was an affront.
“Well, Herr Hitler, I am sorry to hear that you had to suffer through my performance.”
Willy turned to her with a playful glint in his eyes. “Are you aware that your eyes take on a deeper hue of brown when you’re angry, Fräulein? They are quite off-putting, if I may say so. I certainly did not mean to offend. You should understand, I detest the opera. I attend only because my uncle insists that I gain more culture in my life. You were exquisite, but you see, your grandeur was lost on this ignorant troglodyte.”
Ursula tried not to smile but lost the battle. She burst out laughing.
“My God, but you’re beautiful,” Willy said.
She brought her hand to her mouth and blushed. “And you are quite forward, Herr Hitler. I’m sure that my father would not approve.”
The maestro, fearing that his presence had been forgotten, shifted on his feet and cleared his throat. Willy tore his gaze from Ursula. “Forgive me, maestro, but I must take my leave. Again, it was a pleasure to meet you. Both of you.” Willy turned to Ursula and took her hand. “If I promise to behave, may I present myself to your father so that you and I might dine together this evening?”
Ursula knew that she should say no. Warning bells rang in her head about this suave man who had inadvertently insulted not only her singing, but her chosen profession as well. As a performer, Ursula possessed a vivid imagination, and there was no way the situation ended well in any version of events. But before her brain could fully process a response, her mouth spoke.
“Yes. That would be lovely.”
“Splendid. I shall pick you up at, say, six? That will give me enough time.”
“Enough time for what?”
Willy smiled and Ursula felt her pulse quicken. “To persuade your father that I’m not the cad you will make me out to be upon your arrival home.”
Elizabeth B. Splaine wrote the Dr. Julian Stryker series of “Blind” thrillers (Blind Order and Blind Knowledge), as well as Devil’s Grace, the winner of the When Words Count writing competition, released through Greenwriters Press. Her most recent book, Swan Song, an historical fiction novel, was released in October 2021 through Woodhall Press.
Prior to writing, Elizabeth earned an AB in Psychology from Duke University and an MHA from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She spent eleven years working in health care before switching careers to become a professional opera singer and voice teacher.
When not writing, Elizabeth teaches classical voice in Rhode Island where she lives with her husband, sons, and dogs.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
I’m a retired opera singer who teaches voice when I’m not writing.
Tell us something really interesting that's happened to you!
I used to not tell this story because it’s so embarrassing, but my husband pointed out (when I told him after several years of marriage) that although it’s embarrassing, it’s also empowering. I’ll explain after I tell you the story.
Picture it: summer of 1987, Wilmington, Delaware. Temperature is approximately 92 degrees with high humidity. I’d been asked by my college lacrosse coach to try out for the 1988 women’s Olympic lacrosse team and had politely declined, knowing I wasn’t Olympic caliber and, as importantly, I didn’t really want to. She disagreed and insisted, so I reluctantly told her I’d do it. After spending a summer working in a mall selling clothes, I decided (two weeks before the tryout) that I should get in shape. So I took it seriously and pushed myself to my limits for those fourteen days.
Tryout day arrived. My parents drove me to Villanova University fields outside of Philly, and as we pulled up, my father whistled, then said, “Holy crap. These women are Amazons.” I peeked out the window and saw he was right. The women tossing the ball around were massive, strong, and tall. In a word, intimidating. You got this, I remember thinking. “Good luck,” my parents commented as I exited the van with my two sticks. After checking in, I joined a star drill, already in progress. The ball was whipped to me from across the star, knocking the crosse (stick) out of my hand. I gritted my teeth and thought, Okay. Bring it, Beth. So I stepped up and matched the intensity.
The time had come to scrimmage, and I was assigned to defend a woman about six inches taller than me. I turned to say hi to her when the whistle blew, starting the scrimmage. She took off like a shot and I found myself sprinting to catch up with her. I managed to intercept a ball coming her way and returned it to our offense, then leaned over to catch my breath. Before I knew it, my assigned player ran past me with the ball, on her way to the goal. I managed to catch her and knocked the ball from her crosse, tossed it to our offense again and leaned over to catch my breath. Yes…you’re seeing a pattern here that continued for ten more minutes. By the time our scrimmage was over, I was doubled over, trying desperately not to vomit in the heat and overexertion.
The whistle blew and we retreated to the sideline as the coaches reviewed their roster. They were about to call out names of people who’d been cut before we continued the scrimmage. I lay on the ground, praying I’d be cut. Say my name, say myname. If I got cut, I could tell my college coach I legitimately tried but didn’t make it.
To my extreme surprise and displeasure, my name wasn’t called, and the whistle blew once more, returning us to our previous positions. This time I was ready and matched my opponent’s vigor but after four minutes I literally couldn’t keep up. I lectured my legs, calling them nasty names in an effort to shame them into running faster, but they didn’t oblige, simply continued their leisurely trek until the final whistle blew. I remember crawling…yes, crawling to the sidelines and collapsing under the bleachers in an effort to find some relief from the sun and heat.
As the coach called out who’d been cut, I listened through my wheezing haze to hear my name. And like a gift from Heaven, she called “Beth McMillan?” But it wasn’t in the form of a statement. It was a question. I raised my hand from under the bleachers and tried to say, “Here!” but was too winded. Instead, I waved my hand and wheezed. “Has anyone seen Beth McMillan?” she persisted. Another young woman called out, “I think she’s under the bleachers!” I nodded my thanks as the coach leaned over me. “You okay?” I gave her a thumbs up while thinking, Do I look okay? She nodded once, then said, “Thanks for coming out. You can go home.” I wanted to cry tears of joy but was so dehydrated that I couldn’t produce a single tear.
Now, that was a humiliating story, right? But my husband pointed out to me that not many people are asked to try out for the Olympics and…I made it through the first cut. I had literally never thought of it that way. Since he said that, I have shared this story and manage to find humor, gratitude and humility in it, along with a smidgeon of pride.
What are some of your pet peeves?
People who leave their shopping carts in the parking lot. Are you telling me you just walked a mile and a half around Walmart, Costco or BJ’s but you can’t walk the extra fourteen steps to put your cart in the corral?
Do you have a favorite movie?
I love the Bird Cage because of the warmth, humor and lessons about being yourself.
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie? Swan Song has been considered in Europe as a series or film because of its sweeping, dramatic flair, or so I’m told. I think Devil’s Grace would be a great Netflix series because Dr. Angela Brennan is a kick-ass bolt of broken lightning. And I know that Steel Butterflies is a timely story that could be a great movie or series.
What inspired you to write this book?
Years ago I met a remarkable woman who had three PhD’s and had lived through WWII France as a teen. As we became closer, she revealed closely held secrets from her time as a spy in the war. It turns out she was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to today’s CIA. On her death bed she mentioned being in meetings with Eisenhower and “Wild Bill” Donovan. She’d met Rommel in Paris and spoke of disbelieving the rumor that Hitler had killed himself when she heard it sitting in the OSS offices in Germany.
She gave me permission to write her story, then retracted that permission, believing there were still people alive who would “do her harm” if her identity were revealed. Not knowing if the book would ever be published, I wrote the story from Ebony’s perspective and changed many details so they wouldn’t be linked to my friend in any way. Nevertheless, I still felt I needed her permission. When I visited her as she lay dying, I read her an excerpt from the book. Her eyes never opened, but she smiled as she listened, repeating, “Beautiful” in her thick French accent. After I read, I asked her if I could “put this book out into the world.” She smiled and said, “Yes.” I then asked her if she wanted to add a quote to the beginning of the novel. She answered, “Love is eternal.” Like I said, she was remarkable.
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
I’ve been asked why a white woman chose to write a bi-racial teen. The answer is complicated and simple. When Ebony popped into my head, she came fully formed, a troubled teenager who was so much more powerful and wonderful then she realized. She happened to have an abusive white father who was no longer in the picture (though we’re not sure why in the beginning) and a loving, kind black mother, giving her a somewhat complicated family picture because she lives in a primarily white town. I reached out to people of color and read books like White Fragility and Stamped from the Beginning in an effort to understand Ebony’s perspective. I asked several people of color to read Steel Butterflies to make sure I painted Ebony in a realistic light. I’m so grateful for this particular writing journey I went on and look forward to continuing to learn how I can have an active, positive impact on racial and socioeconomic inequity and inequality. Racism is learned. Therefore, it can be unlearned, and eventually, perhaps never taught in the first place.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I loved writing the character of Connor Leibovitz. Although he could be seen as the comic relief of sorts, the fact is that Connor is brilliant, loyal, kind and tough. He’s able to reveal some insecurity yet not appear weak. The scenes between Ebony and Connor flew from my fingers, and I always found myself smiling when I’d completed one of their chapters.
How did you come up with the title of the book?
The title of this novel has changed several times. Originally it was Butterfly Reflections, as Madame and Ebony are reflections of each other. It was also called Butterfly Soldiers, as they’re both soldiers of a sort. But my publisher came up with Steel Butterflies, which I love and has been received very well. For the older crowd, the title evokes Steel Magnolias. Strong as steel yet elegant as a butterfly. What I love is that butterflies seem fragile, but travel thousands of miles each year to ensure mating and survival. I think women, despite all of our advances, are often seen as fragile. Yet we know, don’t we, that we’re really tough as steel.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
I based Ebony’s physical appearance on Antonia Gentry, and would love Meryl Streep to play Madame Celeste DeWit (from Steel Butterflies.) For Swan Song, I’d love Ms. Streep to play Marika and would look to cast a young, aspiring opera singer to play Ursula.
Convince us why you feel your book is a must read.
We’re living in a time when the country is divided because we’ve forgotten where we came from and what makes us united. Both Swan Song and Steel Butterflies remind the reader to think for oneself (as opposed to going along to get along), consequences from choices are real, and that if we reach across the racial, political, socioeconomic, age, (you name it) aisle we can affect real, long-lasting change where everyone can feel valued and heard. We’ve stopped listening to each other, instead planning our retort before the other person has finished speaking. We tend to learn when we speak less and listen more.
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