Review: In The Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
This was a beautiful, beautiful book about a time period and a setting I knew nothing about and I so enjoyed reading this (despite the fact that it's a horrifically difficult subject matter).
Very basically, this book is about the Mirabal sisters, Patría, Dedé, Maria Teresa and Minerva, who were known as the Mariposas (the butterflies) when they were working in the underground against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, and the ultimate murder of three of them at the hands of the regime (it was never conclusively proved that the regime had them murdered, but like... it's pretty safe to assume that the regime had them murdered).
That isn't a spoiler, since we find out in the prologue that the Mirabal sisters die fighting against Trujillo.
This is an excellent book. The story shifts back and forth in time, between the POV of each of the four sisters - Patría, Minerva and Maria Teresa who were murdered and Dedé, the one who survived - and tells the different ways they remembered their childhood, their parents' relationship, how they discovered the Trujillo regime was bad, and how they came to be motivated to join the opposition movement and fight back. This novel was an excellent example of stakes remaining high throughout the entirety of the compressed timeline (maybe that's because the ultimate arc of the novel was pretty high stakes? DISCUSS) - each chapter has its own mini build, climax, resolution, and it all feeds seamlessly into the overarching stakes and narrative of the underground movement.
Each of the sisters has a very distinctive voice. What's great about that is that we get to see each of the characters from different points of view, and ultimately that means the picture we get of each of the characters is a composite of the way three different people think of them and therefore probably a fuller and more complete picture than if we only got the way they were seen by one other character or from inside their own head (but because some of the sisters relate their chapters in first person, we also get to see what they think of themselves). Because every sister is so defined as a person, and the way they share information and relate their stories is so precisely them, it adds an extra layer of suspense and drive to the story, of the multiple different ways a single event can be interpreted and how tricky and elusive a thing memory actually is (wow, look at me going all literary analysis).
And this is such a good story (maybe I shouldn't say that about a book that is about, ultimately, some pretty horrific human rights abuses and state-sanctioned extra-judicial killings and unwarranted imprisonment, etc, etc). But the way each of the sisters becomes attached to the movement, the way each of the sisters has to overcome her own stumbling blocks to it - it was fascinating watching each of them come to their own red lines, and use the weapons they had at their disposal to convince themselves, each other and their husbands to join in. Maria Teresa joined because she was in love with a revolutionary and at heart she was always a romantic who would go where love told her to; Minerva was always a revolutionary and wanted a cause to fit with the fanaticism she developed as a young student thwarted of her dreams; Patría, who always defined herself as a Catholic and a mother, joined because she wanted to protect her children; and Dedé became a revolutionary to protect her sisters out of loyalty to them and to get back at her disappointment of a husband. And the way each of them played on their strengths as women to convince their menfolk, and to keep on fighting after their imprisonment - ugh it was just so good. And the way each of the sisters' internal struggles and arguments is sketched out, with such vivid, caring, wonderful humanity - they really come across as full people who didn't want to be in this fight but joined it anyway, and how much they struggled with carrying it and the weight of so much expectation, and how they were people before they became the legends that I've somehow never heard about? I'm still so angry about that.
I also adored the way this book grapples with the amount of trauma and survivor's guilt Dedé had to carry around with her for the rest of her life, and how difficult she found it, as the only one of the four to survive, to separate the real women her sisters were from the myths and legends that sprung up around her sisters, and how she felt like she couldn't remember them in her own way because they belonged to everyone now instead of just her. It was such a subtle, empathetic, compassionate, intelligent way of tackling a subject
I really, really loved this book, and I'm almost angry I never had to read it in school, since it tells such an amazing story of such incredible women. All told, I highly recommend this and I think everyone should read it - I've already shoved it into my housemate's hands and she says it is very good and very intense - and I think this is one of those novels that I'm going to be thinking about for a very long time, and keep coming back to. It's going to end up in my top of 2021 list for sure.
Everyone go read this book, it's so incredible.