Book of the Month: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (1994)

Critical Evaluation

“Julia Alvarez’s shimmering second novel, “In the Time of the Butterflies,” is based on the real story of the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic, known there as Las Mariposas , the butterflies. That was their code name in the underground opposition to dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, and on Nov. 25, 1960, Trujillo agents murdered three of the sisters, the ones who had become national symbols of resistance. The fourth sister, Dede, survived, and Alvarez begins to tell their story in Dede’s tired, exasperated voice more than 30 years later.

“She is dreading the arrival of yet another interviewing journalist. ‘Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?’ Dede grumbles. It is the question all survivors ask themselves, and she parries it during the interview while she sorts through her memories of childhood, of family life, of love and birth and death, interwoven with the politics that defined the time of the butterflies. Unconsciously, Dede also summons the spirits of her sisters to tell their stories too.

It is part of Alvarez’s skill as a writer that the larger themes she takes on don’t obtrude too much through the voices of Dede and her sisters. Each of them becomes aware at different times of Trujillo’s reign of terror. Flighty Maria Teresa, the youngest, has to bury her treasured diary of Christmas treats and girlish crushes when a friend mentioned in it is arrested. Years later, her woman’s diary includes a drawing of how to make a Molotov cocktail, and pages from another become coded messages from prison. ‘May I never experience all that it is possible to get used to,’ she writes.”

Omang, Joanne, “For This They Died? : IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES,  By Julia Alvarez,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1995. 

First Excerpt

“She got so she wouldn’t go to church unless Mamá made a scene. She argued that she was more connected to God reading her Rousseau than when she was at mass listening to Padre Ignacio intoning the Nicene Creed. “He sounds like he’s gargling with words,” she made fun. “I worry that you’re losing your faith,” I told her. “That’s our pearl of great price; you know, without it, we’re nothing.” “You should worry more about your beloved church.”



Second Excerpt

“Minerva could tell. One day, we were lying side by side on the hammock strung just inside the galería. She must have caught me gazing at our picture of “the Good Shepherd, talking to his lambs. Beside him hung the required portrait of El Jefe, touched up to make him look better than he was. ‘They’re a pair, aren’t they?’she noted. That moment, I understood her hatred. My family had not been personally hurt by Trujillo, just as before losing my baby, Jesus had not taken anything away from me. But others had been suffering great losses. There were the Perozos, not a man left in that family. And Martinez Reyna and his wife murdered in their bed, and thousands of Haitians massacred at the border, making the river, they say, still run red—iAy, Dios santo! I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful Father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!”