In the Time of the Butterflies

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In the Time of the Butterflies
by Julia Alvarez

This historical novel tells the story of the Mirabal sisters. They lived in the Dominican Republic during the rule of the dictator Trujillo. At the beginning of the book we know that 3 of the sisters were killed in 1960 for opposing the dictatorship and that the fourth sister, Dedé survived. We hear the story from each of their points-of-view as they grow up and become the famous women whose assassinations resonated throughout the world.

The book hit me at a very visceral level. By the end of the novel I felt close to the sisters and even though I knew from the start how it would end, losing them was still painful. Patria, the eldest sister, had a gentle heart and incredible courage. María Teresa, the youngest, was sweet and devoted. Minerva was incredibly headstrong and brave and it was her story that hit me the hardest. She blazed the path to the revolution for her sisters and I wonder if she ever felt responsible for their safety.

I loved how the book unfolds each sister’s story separately. Each one is interwoven with the others, but they all came to join the revolution in very different ways; for political reasons, for love or because they want to be a protective mother to the revolutionaries. Each one has such a beautiful voice and you grow to feel for each of them separately. You share their frustrations with their sisters, and then when you read the next sister’s section you love that one’s story just as much.

I was surprised that I identified with different sisters at different points in their lives. I had very little in common with some of them, but it was written in such an intimate way that you felt as though you were there, living their passion and frustration and joy right alongside them.

Trujillo regime is not one we hear about very often, but it was horrific. He ruled for 30 years and managed to kill more than 50,000 people during that time. He was an advocate of genetic cleansing and killing black people who make up a huge part of the population in the in Dominican Republic. It reminded me a bit of Hitler’s reign in Germany. People had to say "Viva Trujillo," just like Europeans had to say "Heil Hitler" to show their loyalty and support. It reminded me that if no one stands up against tyrants the world becomes a dark place. It’s easy to say the sisters should have sat back and done nothing, but in the end their deaths brought more worldwide attention to what was happening and who knows how many lives were saved.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s difficult for a book to balance a history lesson and an emotional story arch, especially when it’s being told from multiple points of view. I felt like this book did all of those things so well. It’s an important subject matter to be aware of and I loved it.
“How people romanticized other people’s terror.”

Image from here.


Ana S. said...

I loved this book as well. Have you read Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents? It's really good too.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This was one of the books that was suggested for my book club (the one with the control freak at the helm) but was not on Kindle. I was very sad because it sounded SO GOOD. Someday I hope to get to it.

Nikki Steele said...

I really like when an author can show the same story from different points of view--it adds so much to the actual depth of a story. I just read The Dovekeepers which did the same thing to show a story between multiple women.

As much as it can be difficult to read these types of stories, I doubt there is any other more immediate way to learn about this, or any other period, of history. And by learning, the hope is that it doesn't happen again, right? Sounds like a stunning, challenging, and brave book. Thanks for the review!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Ana - I haven't read that one yet, but now it's on my list!

Sandy - Definitely add it to your book club list in a couple years. There are some great things to discuss about standing up in a revolution vs. obeying the law even if it's wrong, etc.

Nikki Steele - I've been meaning to read The Dovekeepers. I've heard it compared to The Red Tent, which I loved.

I think your comment about reading being the most immediate way to learn about these things is truee. There's a line in Fahrenheit 451 that says something similar about how most people won't be able to travel the whole world, but books allow them to do that and they are crucial to learn about/appreciate other cultures.

Jenners said...

It sounds amazing and powerful and well-written … so I must read it. I'm ashamed to say I never heard of this Trujillo.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

Read this years ago for book was really good.

Lilly said...

This was a recommended read in my Carribean studies class. Heard it was good! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jenners - I felt the same way, I couldn't believe I'd never heard about Trujillo.

Melissa Mc - This would make a great book club book, I could see some wonderful discussion points.

Lilly - I want to take a Carribean studies class!

Jeanne said...

This is one of the books I've taught, because it's an important story and so well told; the alternating narrators show you different perspectives.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - I would love to have heard you teach on this book!