In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

My introduction to this book was in a World Literature class I was assigned to teach. I had little knowledge of world lit – my experience has been mainly in British and American lit, so I had to read out of my box. I found this book, In the Time of the Butterflies, to be one of the most memorable book we read that summer (#1 was One Hundred Years of Solitude. If I had been able to I would have gotten all my students T-shirts labeled I Survived One Hundred Years of Solitude – but more about that another time.)

I am old enough to remember the overthrow of Trujillo, but young enough to not have understood what was involved. This book makes it clear what was at stake in the Dominican Republic and what was American policy during the Cold War. If a dictator was anti-Communist, anything he did was just fine by the US. This book is a well-written work that illustrates the unspeakable horrors of the Trujillo Dictatorship and political oppression throughout the society. Alvarez has  immortalized the Mirabal sisters as national heroines.

In the Time of the Butterflies is a skillful mixture of fact and fiction. It is based on the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. They were known as “las mariposas,” or “the butterflies,” in the underground and Alvarez imagines their teenage years and their gradual involvement in the opposition. Although the reader knows how the story ends, Alvarez creates mounting tension as “the butterflies” meet their horrific deaths when they were ambushed and assassinated as they drove back from visiting their jailed husbands. This event was, if not the last straw, significant in the overthrow of Trujillo a few months after their deaths.

The novel begins with the recollections of Dede, the fourth and surviving sister, who feared the consequences to her family and could not bring herself to join her sisters. We also learn the stories of the other sisters: fearless and outspoken Minerva; pious Patria, who forsakes her religious calling faith to join her sisters; and sensitive Maria Teresa, who, in a series of diaries, records the physical and spiritual anguish of prison life.

My students thought highly of this book; it was part of the theme I was following of political and cultural repression throughout the world. Some things haven’t changed, unfortunately, for many peoples in many countries.

Related videos: Half of this is in Spanish, without subtitles, but it gives you a memorable view of the sisters’ home and the respect and love that the Dominican people hold for them. It features Dede, the surviving sister, and how she has lived her life without her sisters. Then, briefly outlines the American Involvement in the Trujillo Era. There are several other YouTube videos on the subject; unfortunately, for English speakers at least, they are in Spanish. Watching Trujillo in action, however, gives you an idea of his power and intimidating demeanor.


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Filed under Fiction, History

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