And so it is that what you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew, nor did I have access to enough information or the talents and inclinations of a biographer to be able to adequately record them. As for the sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, they were finally also inaccessible to me. I realized, too, that such deification was dangerous, the same god-making impulse that had created our tyrant. And, ironically, by making them myth we lost the Mirabals once more, dismissing the challenge of their courage as impossible for us, ordinary men and women.In the Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the lives of the Mirabal sisters. In the 1950's, the sisters opposed the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and as a result three of the four were murdered. Julia Alvarez's novel focuses on Patria, Minerva, María Teresa and Déde's lives both before and after they became involved with the underground movement that ultimately cost three of them their lives.
I thought I'd open with that quote from the afterword because that I liked the most about In the Time of Butterflies was exactly how very human it was. We follow the sisters from an early age - before they were even aware that they lived in a police state - through their discovery of politics, and ultimately to prison and to death. It's impossible not to care about them as human beings, and, even though we know their fate from the very start, it's impossible not to hope against hope that they will be okay. Though I knew what was coming, my heart was pounding all through the final section of the book.
I have to confess that I knew nothing about the horrors that took place in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo's regime until I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junót Diaz last year. That was also where I first heard of the Mirabal sisters, so this was the perfect follow-up. The subject of dictatorships is one that feels a bit close to home: my country was one until only a decade before I was born, and my father was part of the revolution that ultimately brought it down (and broke his hip bone in the process and had to spend his first six months as a citizen of a democratic country in a hospital bed, but that's nothing compared to what could have happened if things had gone truly wrong). One of the things I love about fiction is that it gives you a better idea of what living in constant terror and still finding the courage to join an underground movement feels like than facts ever could.
The characterization in In the Time of Butterflies was perfect. The story is told in alternating sections from the point of view of each of the sisters - including Déde's, alive decades after her sisters died, and having to constantly answer the question, "Why did you survive?". As Alvarez says, these are not the real Mirabal sister, but that doesn't matter one bit. What matters is that they feel like real people, just like the actual sisters were real people. And this shows us that yes, real people can do this - they can survive the pressure and the fear and find the determination to do what they think is right, all while still remaining vulnerable and human.
I won't lie, In the Time of Butterflies is an upsetting book. But for that very reason, it's an important and necessary one. When I finished it, I commented on Twitter that it had made me cry, and after my friend Chris told me he was in the mood for one of those book that make you cry, I explained that this iss not a book that makes you have a good cry and then feel better about things in general; it's a book that leaves you feeling rotten because things like this still happen all over the world - dictators still oppress people, and those who try to stand up to them still get killed. But then again, making us realize there's a lot in the world to feel miserable and uncomfortable about is also what books are for.
Books and Other Stuff
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