Monday, March 2, 2009

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

This novel has long been a favorite of mine. It is a fictionalized account of four sisters in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo reign. The Mirabal sisters did exist and three were murdered after visiting their imprisoned husbands, but most details of their lives are unknown, hence the fictionalization. Although the outcome of the novel is never in any doubt, Alvarez does a fine job of bringing each sister to life and also examining the grief and guilt of the surviving sister, Dedé.

Here Dedé dreads the annual November visitors that come to honor her sisters: “Usually, if she works it right – a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in – usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedé lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?”

The story is told by Dedé in 1994 and also by all of the sisters from the late 1930s to 1960. Here is Patria, the oldest sister, in 1959.

“My sisters were so different! They built their homes on sand and called the slip and slide adventure.
Minerva lived in a little nothing house – or so Mate had described it to me – in that godforsaken town of Monte Cristi. It’s a wonder her babies didn’t both die of infections.
Mate and Leandro had already had two different addresses in a year of marriage. Renters, they called themselves, the city word for the squatters we pity here in the country.
Dedé and Jaimito had lost everything so many times, it was hard to keep up with their frequent moves. Now they were in our old house in Ojo de Agua, and Mamá had built her up-to-date cottage on the main road from Santiago, complete with aluminum jalousies and an indoor toilet she called ‘the sanitary.’
And me, Patria Mercedes, like I said, I had settled down for life in my rocksure house. And eighteen years passed by.”

I highly recommend reading this book to learn more about how these four women may have lived during this time and why they became targets of the regime. It is an amazing story of women standing up to tyranny. And, it is so difficult to imagine doing that while raising children. But as the story eventually brings out, how could they not fight for a different way of life for their children?

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