Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: In The Time Of The Butterflies by J. Alvarez

While I was in college for the life of me, I could NOT pass Spanish III. After lamenting about this in the offices of the literary arts magazine I edited for, one of my coworkers asked me why I didn't do like everyone else at UNCG and take Spanish at the local community college and then transfer the credits in. I didn't even know that this was a possibility, but apparently I was the only one who didn't know because on the first day of class I was surrounded by familiar faces that I had seen on the UNCG campus. The professor was not unfamiliar with UNCG students taking the Spanish courses through him and upon polling us we discovered that only 2 out of the 20 some students in that one class were not transferring their credits to UNCG. I loved this class and this professor. He was an American man who just decided to learn espanol and then teach it. He was good at it and he enjoyed it and I passed his class with an A. His name was Don Bill and I respected him because A. he loved the Golden Girls almost as much as I did and 2. He was a huge reader. Constantly Don Bill would talk about the books that he had recently read or was in the midst of reading at the moment. One of those books was In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. The way he was speaking about this book inspired me to some day read it and so I added it to my TBR pile and rarely thought about it again. That is until a few months ago I stopped off Ed McKay's to unload some old books and DVDs before moving and spotted this book. I made a couple of bucks off of the items I had sold so I decided to pick up this story of the famous martyred Mirabal sisters and finally give it a try. It still sat physically on my TBR shelf for a few months. On November 25 I finished reading the latest book for book club and was looking for my next read and I just decided to grab In the time of the Butterflies and sat down on the bathroom floor, turned on the space heater and got down to business. It was fate that I started reading it on 11/25/12 as this was fifty-second anniversary that the Mirabal sisters were beaten to death and tossed over the side of a mountainside in the Dominican Republic as a consequence of rebelling against the dangerous Trujillo reign of terror.

In the Time of the Butterflies is the historically fictionalized account of the lives of Dede, Maria Teresa (Mate), Patria and Minerva Mirabal, four sisters, Las Mariposas (the Butterflies), who were born and raised near the Dominican capitol. The sisters are convent-educated and through friends and family members they find themselves at the center of an underground group of rebels against the 30+ year rule of Trujillo. The story is told from each of the sisters perspectives leading up to the moments before the fateful ambush. The one surviving sister, Dede, who was not with her sisters that night, tells her story in present tense and in flashbacks. The story is a tangled tale of family and loyalty and honor and courage. 

Title: In the Time of the Butterflies
Author: Julia Alvarez
Publication Date: 1994
Pages: 432
Publisher: Algonquian Books
Where I got it: Ed McKays Used Bookstore, Winston-Salem, NC
Dates I read it: November 25, 2012-December 9, 2012
Number of stars: 4/5

There is very little biographical information on the Mirabal sisters so creating lives for them had to be quite difficult for Alvarez. However, she is able to pull it off perfectly. Each sister has her own voice and her own fears and frustrations both political and personal. My favorite sister was Minerva. I loved her for her spunk, her feminism, and her courage, even if sometimes that courage, by her own self admittance, was just  her putting on a brave face to keep her sisters going in the fight. I enjoyed reading the chapters that were told from Maria Teresa (Mate) the best. Her chapters were done through diary entries. Beginning when she was a young girl and showing the usual Dear Diary type entries and ending with her time in prison with her writing honestly about her time in a torture chamber in a contraband diary. Reading the pieces from Dede that were told in present time were difficult to read as Alvarez made you feel the loneliness and the heartbreak that comes from loosing three sisters and taking on the burdens and responsibilities of raising all of their left-behind children. I liked the fact that even though this is a work of fiction and the lives and activities of the sisters were a complete fabrication of Alvarez's imagination, this book does shed light on what it must have been like for any family existing under atrocious Trujillo rule in the Dominican Republic. 
Each sister told the story from her perspective about a certain span of time. I would have loved to get a point of view from the other three during the same time periods. I also would have enjoyed a non-sister voice of someone who was outside of the revolution and I think that perhaps their mother who feared and prayed and stuck behind them and loved them and clung to life for twenty years just so she could assist in the raising of the children that were left behind would have been a great voice to hear from. 
Like I mentioned earlier, my favorite was the vigorous Minerva and I loved reading the earnest diary entries of Mate. The only characters I didn't like, surprise surprise, were Trujillo and everyone who was with him, the SIM officers. The Mirabal family was like any other family, fighting and loving and keeping secrets. It was easy to believe that the events in the story actually happened to the real Mirabal sisters because they were events that take place in most any family. I loved each and every character in the book. The characterization of them grew from page one and as the years passed and the characters aged, as a reader you are able to get a real sense of their character development. There was honestly nothing about the characters I did not like. Profoundly well written especially considering that little is known about their early lives.
At the end of the novel it is reveled by the author that as a young child she and her family were forced to flee the Dominican Republic as a result of her own father being a part of an underground anti-Trujillo plot. Alvarez became fascinated about the entire era, especially the story of the martyred Las Mariposas sisters and as an adult returned to her home to research the time and the lives of the sisters, even speaking one-on-one with Dede herself in the process. Since the release of the book it has been made into a movie staring Salma Hayek, Marc Anthony and the guy that played Selena's dad and the teacher in Stand and Deliver so I would be interested in seeing it. The trailer looks promising, yet I'm kind of disappointed that it looks like it will only focus on Minerva's story. Whether you read the book or view the film, I do encourage all to make themselves aware of the horrors of this epoch of Dominican history. Viva Las Mariposas!

Favorite Quotes:
"And on the third day he rose again...on my third day at Mama's instead of a resurrection, I got another crucifixion. The SIM came for Mate."

"A chill goes through her, for she feels it in her bones, the future is now beginning. By the time it is over, it will be the past, and she doesn't want to be the only one left to tell their story." 

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