But all I hear is my own breathing and the blessed silence of those cool, clear nights under the anacahuita tree before anyone breathes a word of the future. And I see them there in my memory, as still as statues, Mama and Papa, 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, Dede, the one who survived to tell the story. – from In the Time of the Butterflies –
On November 25, 1960 three sisters were found dead at the bottom of a cliff in the Dominican Republic. They were Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria Maribel- leaders in the revolt against the cruel dictator, General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. They were more popularly known to the citizens of the Dominican Republic as “The Butterflies.” Their deaths were covered up by the government as an accident – but the truth is, they were murdered. One sister, Dede, survived to tell their story…but Julia Alvarez gives the dead women voice in her novel. Narrated in alternating chapters by each woman and beginning in the early 1940s, the book brings the reader up to the day of the murders.
There are no surprises in this novel. Right from the beginning, we know how the story ends. Dede begins the narration in 1994 as she is interviewed by a journalist, and she takes the reader back to the beginning, nearly two decades before the murders. Dede is suffering from survivor’s guilt…she needs to tell her story…and really, the book is as much about this lone surviving sister as it is about the actual historical events.
Trujillo’s crimes against his people are revealed through the voices of Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria Maribel. Minerva was the most feisty and politically motivated of the three, and it was her voice which I thought Alvarez did a good job capturing. Even still, I found it hard to fully empathize with any of the characters who felt mostly flat to me.
Prior to reading this book, I had no knowledge of what happened in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s through the 1960s…and I did learn quite a bit. But, because of the structure of the novel, there was very little tension developed. We know the end result. We know Trujillo is a monster. We wait for Alvarez to amp up the tension, to tell us something new or illuminating. But it does not happen. Despite Alvarez’s beautiful writing, and some lovely passages, In the Time of the Butterflies never felt compelling to me.
Readers who wish to learn more about the history of the Domincan Republic may find this historical novel interesting. But for me, it was just a so-so read.
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