Thursday, January 19, 2012

Code Name Mariposa

In the Time of the Butterflies
In the Time of the Butterflies
Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional recounting of the Maribel family of the Dominican Republic. The family is notable for having three of four sisters run afoul of dictator Rafael Trujillo, or "El Jefe," paying for their actions with their lives.

Julia Alvarez, who spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, wrote the book to bring the story of these courageous women to a wider audience. In her postscript she writes:
"To Dominicans separated by language from the world I have created, I hope this book deepens North Americans' understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered - of which this story tells only a few."
The novel is framed by the only living sister, Dedé. She is the caretaker of her sisters' memories, and the one interviewed about their lives, by journalists and curious tourists. It is one such casual visitor that calls her up and asks if she can come over for a visit to ask about the sisters, setting up the novel.

The story itself is told by each of the four sisters in alternating chapters. It covers their early lives, when as young girls even the thought that someone might overhear a comment that could be interpreted as anti-Trujillo interrupts family time on the porch and sends everyone scurrying inside for safety.

Minerva is the most focused activist of the sisters. She was the first to speak out against Trujillo, and the one to never waver in what she knew to be right. However, Alvarez does a good job in showing that she's still human, not a mythological hero. She gets scared and discouraged at times, but she knows what has to be done.

All of the women have strong, identifiable personalities. They may have been involved to varying degrees, and for varying reasons, but they all are drawn realistically. Alvarez has certainly succeeded in making these celebrated sisters easy to relate to but still more than capable of inspiring others to action. When they were assassinated, the country was in an uproar. Their deaths were one of many events that led to the downfall of Trujillo's regime. The United Nations chose the date of their deaths, November 25, as the day of the  International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Fortunately, most of us in the US are relatively safe from violent government reprisal when we engage in protest (mostly). So in the spirit of the Maribel sisters, tell me: How do you speak out against injustice?

Want more like this? Try:
  • Junot Díaz, The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Very different style, but it also covers the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
  • Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. Set in Haiti, the DR's neighbor on Hispaniola, around the same time as In the Time of the Butterflies. This time the dictator is Duvalier. This novel is more like a series of interconnected short stories. 


Rayna said...

I remember hearing about this book back when I was in college, but I never got around to picking it up. It sounds really good.

This time I'm actually adding it to my list of books to look up at the library so I don't forget about it!


MJ said...

Glad to remind you :-)

I've been wanting to read something from Julia Alvarez for awhile now. I think I'll try "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" next.