In the Time of the Butterflies
“Not only did this novel . . . only one of her over 20 published books, single-handedly generate mass, global awareness of the story of her country’s resistance through the conjoined figure of the Mirabal Sisters, it has also kept the story alive for over 25 years . . .”
In her editor’s note to the 25th anniversary edition of In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Álvarez writes, “I believe in the power of stories to change the world.” To be sure, Álvarez has every reason to support her conviction.
Not only did this novel, her novel, and only one of her over 20 published books, single-handedly generate mass, global awareness of the story of her country’s resistance through the conjoined figure of the Mirabal Sisters, it has also kept the story alive for over 25 years, inspiring movies, plays, dances, commemorative coins, and even the establishment by the United Nations of November 25, the day of their murder, as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
In 2018, The New York Times mused that, perhaps, the biggest contribution of Álvarez’s five novels, and of In the Time of the Butterflies in particular, is that they existed. And that may be so in that they brought to the surface important conversations around the themes of heroism, feminism, country, courage, patriotism, and identity—this last one especially so for the millions of girls who read her books.
And yet, in all the emotion around the political and social gifts of this novel, there is one reason for its impact and one reason only, and that reason is artistic: it is first and foremost a great story, richly, gracefully told. It is earnest fiction, it is the lie that tells the truth of political oppression, but also of love, heartbreak, poverty, and the sorrow of separation and dehumanization suffered by those unjustly incarcerated. It is not a Hollywood movie in which you see the protagonist bleed, and still you laugh because you know she is not really dead. Here, you know. Here, you feel.
And so it is not an easy story to read, the anxious turning of pages only made possible by Álvarez’s gigantic storytelling talent, and by her exquisitely composed prose, which deftly manages the flow of secrets and revelations, of humor and horror, of intensity and apathy in scenes such as this one, in which a sister under house arrest fails to shake off the trauma of jail:
“But sometimes a certain slant of light would send me back. The light used to fall just so at this time of day on the floor below my top bunk. And once, Minou got hold of a piece of pipe and was rattling it against the galena rail. It was a sound exactly recalling the guards in prison running their nightsticks against the bars. I ran out and yanked the pipe from her hand, screaming, ‘No!’ My poor little girl burst out crying, frightened by the terror in my voice.”
In this way, she tells the story of the four Mirabal sisters and their participation in the underground effort to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's three-decades-long dictatorship of terror. Three of the sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa—were brutally tortured and killed on Trujillo's orders on November 25, 1960. The story is partly narrated in the first person by the fourth sister, Dede, in the “now” of the novel an elderly woman who is the sole survivor of her family’s tragedy, and Álvarez’s helper in suffusing the novel with hope and light amid the heavy weight of dark events that are made darker because we know them to be true.
“They are always so surprised. And not just the American women who think of this as an ‘underdeveloped’ country where Dede should still be riding around in a carriage with a mantilla over her hair, but her own nieces and nephews and even her sons tease her about her little Subaru. Their Mama Dede, a modern woman, Epa! But in so many other things I have not changed, Dede thinks. Last year during her prize trip to Spain, the smart-looking Canadian man approached her, and though it'd been ten years already since the divorce, Dede just couldn't give herself that little fling.”
When Dede refers to American women, as she does in that scene, she is also referring to her own countrywomen, and Álvarez creates space for that conversation by casting one of those “gringas dominicanas” as a journalist of sorts who arrives in the Dominican Republic to coax the story of her sisters out of Dede for the umpteenth time, the subplot, perhaps, the author’s clever device to ignite a unifying message into the debate between those who stay and those who leave (in every country), much like Álvarez’s family left the Dominican Republic for fear of retribution against her own father’s political activism against Trujillo.
The rest of the story is told, mostly, by the sisters themselves, and we are not spared the horror:
“I was left alone in that room with a handful of guards. I could tell they were all ashamed of themselves, avoiding my eyes, quiet as if Johnny were still there. Then Bloody Juan gathered up my clothes, but I wouldn't let him help me. I dressed myself and walked out to the wagon on my own two feet.”
In this 25th Anniversary Edition set, In the Time of the Butterflies is rereleased along with two other beloved Álvarez novels: How the García Sisters Lost their Accent, and Yo! Both are fantastic, a bit lighter and, possibly, very much what one will need once the last page of Butterflies has been turned.