Thursday, March 11, 2010

Righting History



Julia Alvarez knew exactly the significance of  the history she was tackling when she wrote In the Time of the  Butterflies.  She unearthed the pain and terror of a regime that few outside of the Dominican Republic knew about.  As historical fiction, In the Time of  the Butterflies chronicles the oppression of  Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's 31-year-reign as well as the details of daily life for the  revolutionary Mirabel sisters.  The story doesn't just document history but it connects readers to the legends of the Mirabels, also known by their underground code name "The Butterflies," revealing their legitimate place in world history.

I read this book with a firm knowlege of its importance but I have to admit, I wasn't all that eager to delve into Trujillo's cruel world and the Mirabel's suffering. The Time of the Butterflies is not a quick, breezy read.  It flashes between the three sisters, Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa, using diary entries and childhood memories to show what their life was like before they became revolutionaries. A fourth sister Dede, is the sole survivor who lives to tell their story. I read it all with trepidation because I knew what would happen to these women after they married, had children and established their adult identities.  They would be martyred.

Alvarez demonstrates chilling skill as she introduces Trujillo through the sister's adolescent eyes.  First he pounces on a classmate at the girls' convent school. When she gets pregnant and his wife finds out, he packs the teen off to Miami.  At a Trujillo-sponsored dance, the sisters know not to drink anything because of  the dicatator's habit of drugging and then raping girls. When he becomes interested in the rebellious and outspoken Minerva, her father is jailed when she refuses him and the family comes under surveillance from then on. Of course, it gets much worse.  Trujillo killed anyone who disagreed or criticized him.  The sisters joined the underground movement to overthrow Trujillo and they were jailed and tortured.

The compelling point of In the Time of the Butterflies is that the small details were fictionalized but the overall story is real.  At a time (1940s-1960) and in a place where women were not permitted to control much more than their children, the Mirabel sisters helped organize and lead a movement that would free their country. November 25, the day that they were beaten, strangled and their bodies thrown in cars down a cliff to make it appear like an accident, has been declared International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the Mirabel sisters honor.  They left behind six children, the oldest of whom, is now a prominent figure in the Dominican government.  Julia Alvarez has said that she wrote In The Time of the Butterflies because she was haunted by the Mirabels. Her father had been active in the same underground organization as the sisters but escaped with his family to the U.S., four months before the Mirabels were murdered. They gave their lives for freedom and Alvarez has made sure that history will remember the Mirabels.

16 comments:

Tiffany said...

Thanks for the review. I need to add some new bbooks to my reading list.

Have a good day.

A Cuban In London said...

What a powerful review. Although the Trujillo dictatorship was analysed in detail in my history lessons when I was younger, there were many aspects of it that were not covered. I had never heard of these sisters and now I've just put the book on my amazon's list. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Tiffany, I hope you enjoy the book, it's a really important book in terms of political and Caribbean history.

Cubano, The Dominican underground actually followed Castro's revolution in Cuba and used some of his ideas. There is so much about Trujillo and his genocide of thousands of Haitians, that is still informing history.

Execumama said...

I appreciate that review. It does seem like a read you have to get your mind right to get into, but I love those, so I'll add this to my radar.

Catherine said...

I liked this book too although it deals with such a cruel period - I would recommend The Feast of the Goat by Peruvian Mario Vargas LLosa if you want yet another perspective on the Trujillo era, plus on a totally different subject I also really enjoyed reading Alvarez most recent novel Saving the World.... Currently I am reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" which is interesting and yet another take on an awful oppressive regime...Greetings from Mexico

Tiffany said...

I will check it out for sure.

I'm always searching for more books on Caribbean history.

Fly Girl said...

Akila, that's exactly right so get ready!

Catherine, Llosa's book is another classic although the focus is entirely different.

Tiffany, it's a great addition to any Caribbean book collection.

eden said...

What an interesting book! I will check this out. Thanks for sharing the review.

Happy weekend !

Fly Girl said...

Eden, you'll really learn a lof about Dominican history from this book. Happy Weekend to you too.

Wendy said...

I have a long flight coming up and need a good book to read. I wonder how many people vacationing in the Dominican Republic are really aware of it's turbulent history.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fine revierw of this book.

Fly Girl said...

Wenday, I don't think many people are. It's not a history that has been well publicized but books like these really help.

Jean-Luc, thanks.

Mary and Sean said...

I will look this book up. I recently read another story during Trujillo's regime, The wondrous life of Oscar Wao. Fascinating story about people navigating around this dictator's hold on DR

Fly Girl said...

Mary, I have a review of "Oscar Wao" on my blog too, I read it when I was in the DR. Junot's perspective is totally different from Julia's and "Oscar Wao" is all fictional except for the historical references to Trujillo and DR history but there are some sililarities. They both switch back and forth between characters and voices and they're both haunting.

Toni said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by my place. Good to know that I'm not the only one that struggles with Japanese food. I actually had to succumb to a McDonalds tonight I was so hungry :(
Love the photos of the sunsets - talk about picture postcards. And as for Dunstan...it's amazing the people we meet throughout our lives and the stories/experiences they have to share! Brilliant stuff!

Fly Girl said...

Toni, thanks!