Book Review: In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

I hate finishing a good book.

After becoming attached to the characters, seemingly at their side with the struggles they endure and the triumphs that they win, it’s sad to see them go. An end to a good book is like saying goodbye to a friend, with the hope of meeting one day again.

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Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies was one such book, and it resonated even deeper because, though this is a novel, the characters did indeed exist. The story of four sisters living in the Dominican Republic during the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo transports us to the era and enables to visualize what this regime was like. Patria, Dede, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabel each narrate a section of the story which helps us to become equally attached and identify with their circumstances and actions. The girls face various struggles due to their once-idolized leader throughout their childhood and youth, and in adulthood, led by third sister, Minerva, the sisters begin to participate in an underground political movement fighting to stop the dictatorship. Trujillo gets wind of the work of the sisters (known in the underground code as “The Butterflies” or “Las Mariposas”) and plots to have them removed. Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa were assassinated by a group of Trujillo’s cronies on a dark mountain road in 1960. After this, the Mirabel sisters became icons of freedom and women’s rights in the Dominican Republic and in the world.

Julia Alvarez used her creative license to construct historical events into an engaging novel in memory of The Butterflies. Though these sisters are very much intertwined with the identity of a nation, she was able to express their personages in an accessible, and approachable form. We are often faced with textbook interpretations of history, which make important figures like statues in a museum instead of once thinking, breathing individuals, capable of making choices and walking uncharted paths. We see these people as stagnant, unchanging. However, as we know with ourselves, our family members and our friends, this is not how humans operate. We are constantly evolving, and a life-changing decision we made today did not define who we were six months ago. The person we will be ten years from now will have experienced more joy and pain than the person we were ten years ago, and each day will define us a little more than yesterday. This is the beauty of historical fiction, and particularly this novel. As we journey with each sister, we come to understand her and the choices she makes. We see Patria, Dede, Minerva and Maria Teresa grow, and walk along side them. We begin to truly understand the environment and the people, not just what a textbook tells us is so.

The real-Mirabel sisters came to be known as heroines and martyrs in the Dominican Republic. Their death in 1960 inspired many to publicly denounce the cruel regime which signalled the beginning of the end of Trujillo’s reign. Through this novel, these women have become close to my heart for their small daily acts of bravery and standing up for justice that led to the ultimate act of bravery: the loss of their lives for what they believed in. Their story inspires me, and I hope it will you, to fiercely uphold what is just and right in our world, despite the resistance of others. Thank you, Las Mariposas, for your bravery and commitment to freedom – may we not forget your sacrifice.

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