Saturday, September 27, 2014

Butterflies

Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Julia Alvarez's work.  I really enjoyed her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), so I was looking forward to reading In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).

In terms of their structure, the two novels are surprisingly similar.  As Alvarez remarks in her Postscript to Butterflies, "When as a young girl I heard about the 'accident,' I could not get the Mirabals out of my mind" (323).

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that like Garcia Girls, In the Time of the Butterflies narrates the story of the now-legendary Mirabal sisters--Minerva, Patria, Maria Teresa and Dede--and their opposition to Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship of the Dominican Republic through the perspective of each of the sisters.  The novel moves chronologically forward (as opposed to Garcia Girls, which reverses the narrative's chronology) to November 25, 1960.  

The next day, the bodies of Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa would be found in their Jeep, along with the body their driver, Rufino de la Cruz, at the bottom of a ravine. Although it was made to look like an accident at the time, it was later revealed that the three women and their driver had been beaten to death by Trujillo's henchmen--something that everyone suspected at the time of the incident.

The Mirabal sisters were known by their code name, Las Mariposas--"the Butterflies"--during their involvement with an underground resistance effort that they helped to found.  Known as "The Fourteenth of June Movement" (named in memory of those killed in a massacre that Patria witnessed on a religious retreat), the underground movement distributed information about Trujillo's crimes and stockpiled weapons and ammunition in preparation for an organized uprising.

The discovery of the bodies of the Mirabal sisters and their driver catalyzed a nation.  Regarded as national marytrs, their deaths in many ways paved the way for Trujillo's own assassination in 1961.

Alvarez's novel focuses, not on the historical events surrounding the death of the Mirabal sisters, but on an imaginative reconstruction of what their lives might have been like.  As Alvarez acknowledges, her goal was not to attempt to recreate "the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend" (324).

Instead, Alvarez's novel offers "the Mirabals of [her own] creation, made up" but created with an eye to remaining "true to the spirit of the real Mirabals" (324).  Alvarez openly admits that she "took liberties" with historical fact in order to "immerse [her] readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic" (324).

Somewhat paradoxically, Alvarez insists that this is an epoch that "can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination" (324).

While that claim may, in and of itself, be somewhat problematic, the fact of the matter remains that Alvarez has written an interesting and engaging novel--one that, I believe, encourages readers to find out more about thie history of the Dominican Republic for themselves.

By the end of the novel, you feel that you have come to "know" the Mirabal sisters in a way that you could not, if you simply read the historical and biographical materials.

This is the purview of the literary artist: to make a world come alive and to people it with characters you come to wish you knew personally.  Alvarez is a master of her craft and In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel that will remain with you long after you've finished reading.

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