I should begin this review of In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez by confessing I am not the greatest history student. I remember little from what I was taught in high school, but some from what I learned in college. I was an English major, so I took only what I needed to meet my requirements for my degree, but I don’t believe I was ever taught that the Dominican Republic—such a close neighbor of ours—was ruled by a savage dictator for more than thirty years.
I know it now—and will never forget it—because I read Alvarez’s book. You should read it too.
In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel based on real sisters—the Mirabal sisters: Patria, Minerva, MarÍa Teresa, and Dedé—three of whom were active members of the resistance against the Trujillo dictatorship. Dedé was the only one who refused to be part of it, and she was the only one who survived it.
I’m giving away nothing by telling you this; that part of their story is clear from the beginning. In fact, that’s part of what makes this story so heart wrenching. You know they’re going to die, and then you grow to respect them, to be inspired by them, and ultimately—if you’re like me—fall in love with them, taking them into your heart as if they were family or friends you wished you had known.
Alvarez came to this story because of her own family history. Her father was a part of the Dominican resistance and fled to New York in 1960 to escape death. Alvarez had grown up hearing stories about the “mariposas” (the butterflies), as the Mirabal sisters were known, but she wouldn’t fully understand their story until she was a young adult and back in the Dominican Republic for one of her many visits. Alvarez was able to interview Dedé and Minou, Minerva’s daughter. She visited the museum where many of the sisters’ personal belongings are on display. She researched their lives, she began to imagine them as real people, and then she gave us the gift that is In the Time of the Butterflies.
Yes, it’s historical fiction. Yes, she took some liberties as novelists do. But I challenge you to read this book and not be moved by what the people of the Dominican Republic endured. I challenge you to forget these sisters and everything they stood for, everything—and everyone—they loved. I don’t think I ever will. I don't think it's possible.