Introduction to the Novel
Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) is a work of historical fiction based on the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, who participated in underground efforts to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's three-decade-long dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters-Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa-were slain on Trujillo's orders on November 25, 1960. Their story haunted Alvarez, whose own family had fled the Dominican Republic just three months earlier in fear that her father's participation in the resistance would make him a target of Trujillo.
The novel is both an homage to the bravery and sacrifice of the Mirabal family and a literary work of high grace. The first chapter begins in 1994 when a young Dominican-American writer, a gringa dominicana, visits the surviving sister, Dedé Mirabal, at the sisters' childhood home, which has been turned into a museum. Exhausted by the steady stream of pilgrims who have visited her in the thirty-four years since her sisters' deaths, Dedé reluctantly begins to tell the story of a family entwined with the political turmoil of their country.
In the body of the book, narrated in turn by each of the four sisters, Alvarez brings them to life, skillfully telling the story of four young girls who come of age wanting the same things most young women hope for: love, family, and freedom. Each of the sisters chooses to join the revolution in her own time-even Dedé, the one who lives to tell the tale and admits she only got involved "when it was already too late."
Scattered through the girls' stories are glimpses of a nation under siege, where the simplest liberties have been stripped away. We learn the details of the Butterflies' martyrdom slowly and, as it emerges from its chrysalis, readers find a story that spreads its wings, pauses to breathe the air of freedom, and gently takes flight.
Major Characters in the Novel
Independent, outspoken Minerva is determined to get an education but, even after finishing law school, is prohibited by Trujillo from practicing. She is the first to join the revolution- la primera mariposa, the first Butterfly. Her husband Manolo is also a leader in the underground.
"They marveled at my self-control-and so did I. But by now in my life I should have known. Adversity was like a key in the lock for me."
María Teresa (Mate) Mirabal
María Teresa, young and naïve, communicates primarily through journal entries. She becomes aware of the underground after she questions Minerva about both the strange, coded language she uses and a crate of guns that is delivered to the house. She marries Leandro and both join the resistance.
"I've lost all interest in my studies. I just go to classes in order to keep my cover as a second-year architecture student. My true identity now is Mariposa (#2), waiting daily, hourly, for communications from up north."
The eldest sister, Patria, toys with the idea of becoming a nun before falling in love at sixteen with Pedrito González, a handsome young farmer. She becomes involved with the underground after witnessing a battle in the mountains between government forces and anti-Trujillo rebels on the fourteenth of June, 1959.
"Coming down that mountain, I was a changed woman. I may have worn the same sweet face, but now I was carrying not just my child but that dead boy as well."
In the novel's opening chapter, Dedé's father foretells her future, saying, "She'll bury us all [. . .] in silk and pearls." Until after her sisters' deaths, Dedé obeys her husband Jaimito's orders not to get involved in the revolution.
"I see them all there in my memory, as still as statues, Mamá and Papá, and Minerva and Mate and Patria, and I'm thinking something is missing now. And I count them all twice before I realize-it's me, Dedé, it's me, the one who survived to tell the story."
Julia Alvarez, 2000 (Courtesy of Caleb Kenna)
Julia Alvarez and Dedé Mirabal (Courtesy of Dedé Mirabal)
The hills of the Dominican Republic (Courtesy of Bill Eichner)