In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

December 18, 2011
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"A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn't want to be the only one left to tell their story." Thanks to Julia Alvarez, the intriguing and mesmerizing story of the three murdered Mirabal sisters will never die.

In the Time of the Butterflies, written by Julia Alvarez, is a poignant, vivid novel set in the mid-20th century in the Dominican Republic that explores the journey of the Mirabal sisters. Alvarez masterfully catapults the reader into the terror of a highly restricted dictator state (reminiscent of 1984 at times), and weaves into this the half fiction, half fact story of the Mirabals – a story containing school plays and secret love, prison and philosophy. In Julia Alvarez’s own words, “A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” And indeed, this novel immerses its readers in the lives of the sisters – Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and Dedé, the surviving sister. Although the novel starts off slowly, it gains intensity, becoming a gripping page-turner by the end.

The novel is told through each sister’s point of view, and much of the book is devoted to explaining the girls’ childhood and how they ended up as Las Mariposas, the three beautiful butterflies, a symbol of opposition to the Dominican Republic’s cruel dictatorship run by General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The sisters grow up in a small town called Ojo de Agua. Patria is the eldest, who abandons her quiet religion to speak out against the evils of the government. Dedé comes next, cautious and eager to please. Minerva is the theorizing leader of the girls, with a fiery personality. María Teresa is sweet and initially naïve, the baby of the family. The novel echoes the power of women; it is a story told solely by strong women who triumph in the end by being the spark that leads to the downfall of Trujillo.

The story begins and ends with Dedé’s recollections, spurred by an interviewer’s questions about the life and death of her three sisters. Dedé begins their story in 1938, with Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa at a boarding school. Here, Minerva meets girls who introduce her to the idea that Trujillo is not the godlike character his citizens are made to believe. This idea is enforced when Minerva’s friend Lina is chosen to be one of Trujillo’s many mistresses and she is sent away from school to live a lonely life. Minerva herself has subversive letters which Trujillo discovers. As the government becomes suspicious of their family, Trujillo starts to take his revenge. The Mirabals’ father is sent to the capital for questioning, and comes home mentally insane. Each sister and her husband joins the underground movement against Trujillo but the ever cautious Dedé. The revolutionaries are expecting an invasion by Cuban liberators, led by the inspiring Fidel Castro. However, it fails and the sisters and their husbands are all put in jail for their activities. The sisters are eventually released, but they are murdered on their way down a mountain pass after visiting their jailed husbands. The government reports their death as an accidental car crash off the cliff. In an effort to avoid a gruesome scene that would take away from the almost magical end to the book, or perhaps a descent into oversentimentality, Alvarez prudently ends their story, “We moved quickly on towards the Jeep, hurrying as if we had to catch up with that truck. I don’t know quite how to say this, but it was as if we were girls again, walking through the dark part of the yard, a little afraid, a little excited by our fears, anticipating the lighted house just around the bend – That’s the way I felt as we started up the first mountain.”

The epilogue remains in my opinion the most beautiful and moving part of the novel. It is told by Dedé in 1994, an older woman who spends much of her time reminiscing. Out of all the realistic, multi-faceted characters, with Dedé the reader empathizes most. She seems the most human out of the sisters, who are saintly in their courage and dedication to the cause of liberation. Dedé is a martyr in her own way, living every day without her sisters, reliving her losses every time a reporter or writer comes to interview her about the sisters’ story, or when people who knew the butterflies come to tell their story to her. Dedé recounts one of these experiences. “The proprietor had had too much to drink when he told me this. He sat in that chair, his wife dabbing at her eyes each time her husband said something. He told me what each of them had ordered. He said I might want to know this. He said at the last minute the cute one with the braids decided on ten cents’ worth of Chiclets, cinnamon, yellow, green. He dug around in the jar but he couldn’t find any cinnamon ones. He will never forgive himself that he couldn’t find any cinnamon ones. His wife wept for the little things that could have made the girls’ last minutes happier. Their sentimentality was excessive, but I listened, and thanked them for coming.” Her elegant prose is simple and to the point, unlike María Teresa’s childish and often downright petulant diary entries at the start of the novel (“But these newest ones are patent leather, and I have always wanted patent leather shoes.”)

Due to these childish diary entries, the book does lose some of its depth. For example, Minerva tells María Teresa that Trujillo is bad and has killed people. María Teresa (Mate) says, “It is so strange now I know something I’m not supposed to know. Everything looks just a little different. I see a guardia, and I think, who have you killed. I hear a police siren and I think, who is going to be killed.” It’s hard to believe the rapid change Mate undergoes, from being a seemingly immature girl to an eloquent heroine and rebel. In addition, the division of characters as good or bad strikes one as a bit simplistic. The ‘good’ characters, such as the Mirabals, have complexity even as they are described heroically. However, the ‘bad’ ones – everyone serving the dictatorship – are flatly evil.

Towards the end of the epilogue, Dedé says, “I stop in the dark depths of the garden as if I’ve been caught about to do something wrong. I turn around. I see the house as I saw it once or twice as a child: the roof with its fairytale peak, the verandah running along three sides, the windows lighted up, glowing with lived life, a place of abundance, a magic place of memory and desire. And quickly I head back, a moth attracted to that marvelous light.” This is how readers will feel when they read In the Time of the Butterflies; it is a fairy tale story, and despite some simplistic elements and a slow start, it is nearly flawless. Like a moth drawn to light, readers will find themselves unable to put down this fascinating novel that details the lives of the lovable sisters and how they ended up as the mythical heroines of legend, whose day of murder is, in fact, immortalized as the world’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.





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