Book Description from Amazon: It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies.”
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters—Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé—speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression.
My Review: Julia Alvarez weaves fact with fiction to create a novel that offers one view of life under a cruel leader, and she shows the courage it takes to stand up in the face of dictatorship. In the Time of the Butterflies mesmerized me from the first chapter, as told through the fictional voice of the only surviving sister, Dede. Each chapter takes on the voice of all four sisters in a way imagined by Alvarez as she researched the lives of the Mirabel sisters, known as the butterflies.
I was unaware of the history of the Dominican Republic until I read this novel. Of course, I’d heard of Trujillo and his regime, but I’m not sure I even knew which country he ruled. The period portrayed in the novel, 1938-1960, follows the life of the Mirabal sisters. Alvarez creates a fictional life for the characters that she says took her over the more she researched. Alvarez, born in New York City in 1950, was raised in the Dominican Republic for the first ten years of her life as her family supported the overthrow of the Trujillo regime. Four months before the death of the sisters, her family fled back to the United States. She knows of what she writes, and it’s not surprising a ten-year-old girl would romanticize and fantasize about the lives of female heroes in a cause supported by her own parents.
The result is the novel In the Time of the Butterflies, published in 1994. How did I miss reading this? I read her first and probably more widely known novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, published in 1991.
I’m glad I found it. I bought it last year from a bargain bin at Barnes and Noble, simply because I recognized the author’s name. It remained on my bookshelves for almost a year. Once I picked it up, I seldom put in down in the two or three days it took to read.
As a writer, I found the concept of taking real people and real events and giving them fictional dialogue, emotions, and actions, intriguing. Alvarez tells Dede’s story in third person. Dede, the second-born Mirabel sister, is the only to survive because she didn’t travel with her sisters on that November day in 1960. It’s a good choice, even though I questioned it at first. As the novel evolves, it becomes clear that Dede remained removed from the sisters in ideology and character, so it’s appropriate her story is told from a more detached point of view. Dede never really entered into the activities of the butterflies, and often objected to her sisters’ participation in the revolutionary activities, despite her love and loyalty to her family. It is Dede who’s left to raise the children of her siblings after Patria, Minerva, and Mate are found murdered on the side of a road.
Minerva’s story is told in the form of a diary, which is helpful in understanding how she became the first sister to begin to question the government. Throughout the story, she’s also the most radical of the four. Patria, the eldest sister, attempts to cling to her religion through personal tragedies and outside forces through her first-person narrative. The entries of Mate show the brilliance of the author when she begins with Mate’s chapters with immature, girlish diary entries written as a nine-year old. The entries show the maturing of a young woman, and perhaps Alvarez relates to this character the most since she begins her entry into the story near the same age Alvarez was when she and her family fled the country.
Patria’s story touched me the most. She struggled with her faith as she faced the loss of a baby and faced the fear of losing her first-born, a son determined to join the fight against Trujillo. One chapter, “January to March 1960” in particular, struck me. It begins, “I don’t know how it happened that my cross became bearable.” Her husband was imprisoned; her home had been taken over by the government, yet she found hope in that setting by praying to the mandated photo of Trujillo in the hallway of her mother’s home. She didn’t pray to him because “he was worthy or anything like that. I wanted something from him and prayer was the only way I knew to ask.” Patria says she learned the trick from raising children. “You dress them in their best clothes, and they behave their best to match them.” She hoped to turn the regime around by praying to his “better nature.” Through this simple prayer, created in the fictional lives of the women, Alvarez gives the reader a lesson on life.
Even though I knew how the novel would end because of the real historical facts, I was still mesmerized by the story as I read the account of the final days and moments in the lives of Patria, Minerva, and Mate.
It’s the same reason the ancient Greeks attended the same plays over and over again by the few playwrights of the day. They knew the story; they knew the ending; but they didn’t know how the elements within each production would be presented. A classic story withstands its retelling only if the artistic rendering is unique and suspenseful in the hands of a talented writer.
Alvarez qualifies with this rendering of the story of the las mariposas (the butterflies) of the Dominican Republic.
Next, I’ll watch the movie of the same name, starring Selma Hayek as Minerva.
See my post Weaving Real Events into Fiction.