Dec 2, 2009

In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

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.

Other opinions:
Books and Other Stuff
…epiphany…

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

31 comments:

  1. Sad and dark as it is, I know I would love this book. These topics have never scared me; I have an addiction to WWII novels after all. My father-in-law was involved in the Solidarity movement in Poland and was imprisoned in a concentration camp for awhile, so resistance movements inspire me, even though many of these stories don't end well. Excellent review Ana.

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  2. A sad but yet a powerful book! I'm interested to read it! Thanks for the great review, Nymeth!

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  3. My sophomore year of college, I took a class about Latin American dictatorships that we learned about using one historical texts and several novels. Three of these books were dedicated to Trujillo (why I couldn't stand The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao...I had been Trujilloed out by then).

    This book was by far the best. It really mad eme understand the conditions and struggles. It was also the only book in the entire course that showed women standing up and doing something.

    I am glad you liked it - as Melody stated, it is a very powerful book and I would recommend it to almost anyone. Here in America, we ignore the histories of other nations, but the history of the Dominican Republic is one we should all learn a little more about.

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  4. This doesn't sound like a book I can handle right now. I don't know that I could handle anything truly powerful at the moment, at least that isn't familiar to me already. I do have the Junot Diaz book on my list and hope to get to it next year. Maybe after that, I'll think about taking up this one. I don't know anything about this Dominican Republic thing either (I hate that they don't teach us world history in school here!).

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  5. I am strangely in the mood for bleak books right now, and I've been meaning to read Julia Alvarez for ages. How is she at distinguishing the sisters' voices?

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  6. Thanks for this sensitive and honest review! I know what you mean about the importance of books that make you feel rotten afterwards - how else will we know and do what we can to change things?

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  7. These kinds of books can be so difficult to read, but they are also so important to read.

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  8. I remember picking this up on a whim from my school's library when I was in highschool (as I would inevitably wind up reading things instead of doing my algebra/geometry homework...). I knew nothing about it going in, but wound up being incredibly moved and swept away by it. I think in a way, this is one of those novels that started me down the path of appreciation that I have for Latin American authors; the language is so lyrical and lovely!

    This is one of those books that I think is really great but which doesn't seem to get much coverage on blogs, so it was a really nice surprise to see it pop up here! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  9. I love this book too, and have taught it before because, as you say, it makes its readers feel what it's like to live in such a place.

    One of the things I admire about it is how distinct I find each sister's voice.

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  10. This sounds like a very powerful, important book.

    I know very little about Portuguese history and would love to know more about the revolution there. You should write some posts about that.

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  11. I agree, books like this do need to exist. Without the knowledge of what has happened in the past and the monstrosities that took place, people can't change. Great Review!

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  12. I have not read this book but I did see the movie a few years ago and it was wonderful. I didn't know much about the historical setting but the voices and actions of the sisters were powerful.

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  13. Books that make you cry in a bad way are depressing but important. That is how I felt after reading The Blue Notebook earlier this year. Gosh, it's horrifying the sorts of things that happen to people. This was a really good review, Ana- thanks for bringing the book to my attention.

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  14. I know absolutely nothing about this part of history nor the area. Picking up this book may be upsetting but we need to read books like this so that things like this won't be repeated.

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  15. I picked up this book ages ago but haven't read it yet. Although upsetting, it's still a book I know I want to read.

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  16. It's so funny to see you review this book. I read it years ago and for the last month or so I've been thinking about re-reading it. It's still haunts me.

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  17. Books like these are hard to read but absolutely necessary. Thanks for the review, Ana!

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  18. Between this excellent review and Vasilly saying the book haunts her I feel I must read this. I think I'll expand the first month of the Social Justice Challenge to include political freedom so I can read this. :)

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  19. Sandy, I think you would love it, yes.

    Melody, I hope you find it as rewarding as I did.

    Caitie: I would love to take a class about that! I loved the focus on women here as well, as well as the fact that it was so easy to relate to the sisters and imagine what living under a dictatorship must feel like.

    Amanda: I really looking forward to your thoughts on Oscar Wao next year. It's not a book for everyone, I don't think, but I loved it to bits.

    Jenny: I think she was great - they had very different personalities and it shows. It also helps that they were a few years apart in age.

    Jill: Exactly!

    Beth: Very true.

    Steph: I can see how this book would inspire a passion for Latin American literature! The language really was wonderful. Last year I read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and I thought that was beautifully written as well.

    Jeanne, I agree! They truly sounded like different people.

    Kathy, thank you for the suggestion! I'd love to write a post on that sometime, possibly with book suggestions if I can find a few that have been translated.

    She: Exactly. And even so, humankind still stubbornly repeats the same mistakes. Sigh.

    Danielle: They really were. I need to see if I can find the movie version!

    Aarti: I think you'd enjoy this a lot - well, "enjoy". And I'll have to look for The Blue Notebook.

    Staci: Exactly. I had absolutely NO idea either before Oscar Wao, which makes me sad.

    Dar: I definitely recommend it regardless. It's an excellent book.

    Vasilly: I have a feeling it'll haunt me too.

    Alice: You're welcome!

    Amy: You must indeed! I'm ridiculously behind on... well, on life, so I haven't explored the challenge blog properly yet, but I will.

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  20. I don't think I've ever heard of Mirabal sisters and what happened in the Dominican Republic before but this book does sound like it covers it fairly well.

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  21. I've never heard of the Mirabel stories and am completely ignorant about this part of history. I am attracted to stories of human struggle against oppression so I know I would enjoy this and that it would touch me deeply.

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  22. I saw this movie first and I was just sobbing when it ended. I was a mess!

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  23. I actually bought this the other day...I'm looking forward to it, even though I know it'll be an intense read.

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  24. Hi, I just found your blog and saw your review of this book. I read it a couple of years ago and I remember being completely moved by it. I found myself hoping that if I were in their position, I would have half the courage that the Mirabel sisters did. I also loved the fact that it showed women being proactive. I found myself hunting up every one of Julia Alvarez's books and I'm so glad I did. She has a wonderful with language.

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  25. I had never heard of this before, it does sound like an interesting read. It sounds emotional.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  26. Ladytink: It definitely does.

    Kathleen: I think it would, yes!

    Rebecca: I was the same by the end of the book :(

    Jill, I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Melissa: I loved those things about it as well. I need to read more Alvarez! I've only read this and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and I loved the writing in both.

    Naida: It is both!

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  27. I recently read Oscar Wao (on your recommendation really and loved it - review pending). Diaz mentions the Mirabel sisters and Julia Alvarez often and I had actually just added it to my wishlist a week or so before after I had seen you were reading it; your review convinced me to pre-order it (there's a new edition out in the UK in January).

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  28. I'm glad you enjoyed this one so much! I saw Julia Alvarez speak at the National Book Festival but haven't read any of her stuff.

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  29. Claire: I can't wait to see your review of Oscar Wao! That's where I first heard of the sisters as well.

    S. Krishna: I remember your post about that! You also saw Junot Diáz, right? That sounds like it was amazing!

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  30. I have this book on my shelf and after reading your review I think it will be a very moving read. I am not familiar with this story, so it will all be really new to me. Great review Nymeth. You constantly impress me with your thoughts and insights.

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  31. I actually saw the latter half of a film once about this family. I never found out the title. But it was a fascinating story about these women,who were really just girls when they took a stand. I'd probably would want to read a true history of their lives-if one exists. But fiction is a good way to inform people too,it engages them emotionally, and teaches them, even about difficult subjects. Good for you for reading it and reviewing it. It's been on my to-be-considered list for some time now. A good choice for the Women Unbound challenge too I should think.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.