Julia Alvarez‘s 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies, re-issued this year by Algonquin paperbacks in a 25th anniversary edition, (along with 1991’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and its 1997 sequel Yo!) obviously could not forecast the darkness of recent headlines in that resort country of the Dominican Republic, wherein a number of American tourists have died. (See “What the Hell Is Going On In the Dominican Republic?“, EJ Dickson, Rolling Stone, 11 Jun 2019.) Do these recent events indicate where things might be going for this land once ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo, invaded by the United States (in 1965), and seemingly forever relegated to Third World status? The lure of beautiful beaches might make the Dominican Republic among the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean, but the ghosts of a troubled history stalk the living.
As Alvarez explains in a note for this new edition, her motivation was to simply tell a story. Fifty-nine years after the murder of the three
Mirabal sisters at the hands of Trujillo’s henchmen, “…violence against helpless and hapless groups of people is still a fact of life in the United States, in Latin America, and throughout the world.” The Mirabal sisters boldly opposed Trujillo’s regime, and they paid the ultimate price for it on 25 November 1960. The United Nations went on to declare that date as an international day to eliminate all violence against all women. Alvarez reflects on their deaths:
“Three lives were eliminated, but the Mirabal sisters didn’t disappear. They grew wings…My hope lies in the power of…a million small wingbeats creating a mighty wind that can sweep aside all forms of violence…”
As sophomore efforts go, Alvarez’s voice secure and confident as she tells her story of the Mirabal sisters. Their code name,
mariposas (butterflies) forms the core of this novel’s mood and tone. Three of the sisters (Patria, Minerva, and Maria) are killed, so the obligation to testify to their legacy and promise is left to surviving sister Dede (who died of natural causes 20 years after the publication of this novel.) Alvarez begins the story in 1994, as Dede dreads the arrival of another inquisitive journalist. “Before she knows it,” Alvarez writes of Dede, “she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.”
The balance Alvarez has to achieve here can be a little shaky at first. As with How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, this story depends on creating distinctive voices for each of the sisters as they take their turns telling the story. Minerva wants to be a nun. She becomes a charity student at a Catholic boarding school. It’s 1938, 1941, and 1944. Secrets spread about how Trujillo gained power in a sneaky way. “First, he was in the army, and all the people who were above him kept disappearing until he was the one right below the head of the armed forces.” Trujillo starts collecting a small concubine of teen girlfriends that he gradually pulls from these schools to set up in their own places. At a celebration in 1944 for their country’s centennial, Minerva reflects:
“Our history now followed the plot of the Bible. We Dominicans had been waiting for centuries for the arrival of our Lord Trujillo on the scene. It was pretty disgusting.”
Gradually, each of the girls becomes aware of Trujillo’s indiscretions. Maria, the third, a girl prone to dreams that she keeps in a diary Alvarez adapts here, understands this document cannot be seen once a girl mentioned in it is arrested. From early pictures of new shoes and dresses (drawn into Alvarez’s text) we see years later (and later in Alvarez’s novel) a drawing of how to construct a Molotov cocktail. In coded messages written while in prison, Maria writes “May I never experience all that it is possible to get used to.”
Patria, the eldest, writes in 1946: “So you could say I was born, but I wasn’t really here.” She comes off as the easiest, the friendliest, and the sister most faithful to her Catholicism and least likely to understand Trujillo’s wrath until it’s too late. After losing a baby, she loses her innocent perspective and optimism. Her first chapter ends with a brutal scene when she feels compelled to unearth the remains of her dead child. “I should have not seen what I saw,” she notes. “…My child, decomposing like an animal!”
Part II covers 1948 to 1959, and again we open with Dede in 1994 wondering why she was the one destined (or doomed?) to stay alive and tell the story. Minerva, the core and heart of the novel, takes over again. It’s 1949, and she’s heard stories of young women “…drugged, then raped by El Jefe [“the boss”, Trujillo’s nickname.]” While at a dance with Trujillo in attendance, the dictator wanders across the dance floor, studying Minerva and the other girls, threatening to close down the university. Later, in another entry from Maria’s diary, (1953-1958), their father dies. There are marches, demonstrations, and the birth of a movement ready to speak truth to power:
“A national underground is forming. Everyone and everything has a code name…I’ve lost interest in all my studies.”
The suspense of this novel rests equally in determining the horrific way the women died and why Dede alone survived. Alvarez manages to evade the latter and the reader doesn’t really need that information. Dede is the witness, for those coming to hear her tell the story and those of us reading the book. Patria becomes revolutionized after losing a stillborn child and another child from a bomb. “I was a changed woman,” she tells us. “I may have worn the same sweet face, but now I was carrying not just my child but that dead boy as well.” Alvarez provides ample space to describe the killings, which might make some readers uncomfortable, but it proves necessary for the literary license she’s been granted and follows. If the reader sees these literary sisters defined more by what their actual counterparts did than who they were, it’s the only fault of this novel. The reader needs to work carefully to remember who is speaking.
As for why Dede survived, we learn early on that she managed to effectively distance herself from her sister’s revolutionary actions based equally on her husband’s disapproval and basic fear. The only sense Dede receives from all this, the only comfort, serves to help her (and the readers) make the only logical sense of the tragic conclusion: “This is your martyrdom, Dede, to be alive without them.”
Part III, set in 1960, carefully unravels the tragic conclusion. Each girl about to me murdered tells her end. A long section from Maria’s diary features censored passages and torn out pages. In the epilogue, we learn the fate of the murderers. “The men got thirty years or twenty years, on paper… All of them were set free during our spell of revolutions.” Dede reflects that while “we are now the playground of the Caribbean,” she is unsure whether any of it was worth the trouble. “Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?”
In a Postscript, Alvarez notes that “…what you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew.” She notes that the myth-making of the Mirabal sisters (which is what this novel accomplishes) also means they have once again been lost. The Mirabil sisters we read here are of Alvarez’s creation. Liberties have been taken, dates changed, events reconstructed, but the motivation is sincere. “A novel is not, after all, a historical document,” she writes, “but a way to travel through the human heart.”
It’s within this context that Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies speaks to the martyrdom of these women through imagining the conditions of their hearts and the perseverance of a people, a land, and a culture. The Dominican Republic will transcend current troubles just as it transformed itself since the murders of the Mirabal sisters in 1960. Alvarez beautifully captured that vision in 1994. Reading it again in 2019 proves that the strength of this story is still as vital as ever.