In the Time of the Butterflies is a gripping, historical novel about the four Mirabal sisters – political dissidents who opposed the regime of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. It’s not a spoiler to mention that only one of the four Mirabal sisters survived, the others were murdered.
Alvaraz takes the story of the Mirabal sisters – Dede, Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria – and writes an engaging family drama about four young women who find courage in a dedicated and shared cause, a courage that they did not know they possessed. Growing up in a wealthy family, the Mirabal sisters’ lives appeared idyllic: they were beautiful, pampered, rich and their father doted on them.
As ideal as their family lives appeared to be, the Mirabal sisters saw the major debits of the Trujillo government. Led my the headstrong Minerva, each of the sisters plunged into political activism that led Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria to jail and their eventual deaths. In Alvarez’s fictional account, Dede’s involvement was not as heavy as her sisters, which may have spared her; that summation is no judgment on Dede, who was left to maintain the legacy of her slain family members and decry the government and the thugs who did them in.
Besides being a powerful and engaging story, the story of the Mirabal sisters is an important one. In Alvaraz’s hands, their stories intertwine into a complex and involved tale of political awareness, self-determination and feminism. The women all confound patriarchy when going toe-to-toe with Trujillo’s politically repressive regime.
That isn’t to say that Alvaraz paints them as plaster saints or superheroes. Each woman is plagued with self-doubt – including the assertive Minerva. Each woman also goes through a gradual political awakening that does not happen overnight. Each sister also faces the consequences of her actions, bravely, even when it means incarceration.
The novel jumps from the 1960s to the 1990s with some flashbacks to the 40’s and 50s – most notably when describing the Mirabal household when our heroines are young girls. The 1990s are dominated by Dede who is being interviewed by a kindly, if oblivious journalist. Each sister has a voice and a chance to shine; it’s a credit to the author that she can craft such individual and distinct personalities with such singular voices that the reader will not have problems distinguishing chapters from each other. Too often these time-travel novels become jumbled and confused, but Alvaraz has an exacting discipline that doesn’t allow for any confusion. And though all four sisters are brave, Alvaraz is able to convey the different paths to courage each sister takes, all with different motivation and reasoning.
Though the story of the Mirabal sisters is relatively obscure in the United States, they are heralded as heroines and martyrs throughout the world. Salma Hayak produced and starred in a cable biopic, and the Mirabels have been included in documentaries and history tomes. Most significantly, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 (the date of their deaths) as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And while Alvaraz’s novel is an excellent start, here’s hoping that a definitive biography will be written about these brave ladies.
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