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Three brave revolutionary sisters are murdered in cold blood by an evil regime. Sounds like a myth or a fairy tale, right? But no—it's the hard truth of the 20th-century Dominican Republic. Julia Alvarez' 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies gives fictional voices to the real-life political martyrs, the Mirabal sisters.
The book is famous because it's the first English-language literary look at the infamous Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo was among the baddest of baddies, ruling the island nation with an iron fist and a creepy arsenal of scare tactics, including rape, murder, and downright terror. But Trujillo's name doesn't spring to mind for a lot of people listing off 20th century political Big Bads. In fact, for many readers, this novel may be the first time they're hearing about Trujillo and the US's involvement in the Dominican Republic.
Alvarez is a literary trailblazer: Nobel-Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa would write about the same dictatorship in his The Feast of the Goat in 2001 and Junot Díaz does the same in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007. Alvarez is not only the first in this line but also the first to write about the dictatorship in English. But Alvarez addressed the issue first: her quartet of sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies were the original literary heroines resisting Trujillo. And bonus—they were real people.
In the Time of the Butterflies was selected for the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read (really cool). Some grouchy reviewers don't think that it does a good enough job of building up the historical context, but we disagree. And hey—if you need more, just click through this study guide: we've got you covered on context.
And for those movie buffs out there, no need to fear. There is a movie version with a star-studded cast (Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos, not too shabby). For those who dig live action, the novel was recently adapted for the stage by Caridad Svich.
If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be? Why would you choose that person? What would you talk about? Many of us choose inspirational characters, brave men and women who changed the course of history through their sacrifices, vision, and gumption.
We're willing to bet that by the time you finish reading In the Time of the Butterflies, you'll have a new trio of heroines: Patria, Minerva, and Mate Mirabal. The Mirabal sisters were fighters in the underground resistance movement, struggling against Trujillo's brutal dictatorship. Their bravery ended up costing them their lives, though. The sisters are inspiring in their heroism and courage—they made the ultimate sacrifice to try to effect change for their country.
But what's the difference between just reading about them in history books and reading the novel? Well, that's exactly why we think you should care about Julia Alvarez's take on their biographies. By recreating their diaries, letters, secrets, and memories, she gives the sisters personalities and voice. To put it briefly, she brings them to life.
The stories start when the girls are young children and adolescents and follows them from innocence, when they don't even realize that anything might be wrong in their society, to their political awakening and the different ways they arrive at their path as revolutionaries.
Each sister joins the revolution for her own reasons—interpersonal, values, faith—but they are all inspiring. The novel shows how things like boyfriends, sisterly bonds, and a desire to live a moral life all come together to spur the sisters to build bombs, run guns, and plot assassinations.
The sisters are heroic, but the novel also makes them into real people whose ideals are pure but whose motivations might be complicated. It's nice to realize our heroes are human beings, sometimes. It can give us hope, or even inspire us to fight against social injustices ourselves.
Allow Me to Introduce Myself
Julia Alvarez's website.
Never Stop Learning
An awesome lesson page on the novel.
Line It Up
A timeline of Dominican history.
Watch Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos in the big-screen version of the novel.
Dedé, the surviving sister, finally passed away in February 2014.
Extra, Extra: Read All About It
A print interview with the author.
Interview with Julia Alvarez when she won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award.
A documentary on the Mirabal sisters.
An interview with Trujillo.
Which Way Do I Go?
If you need some guidance, listen to this audio guide to the novel.
Listen to Julia Alvarez talk about what it means to have a quinceañera.
The author, Julia Alvarez.
Let's Go to the Movies
The movie poster for In the Time of the Butterflies.
Let's Hear It for the Butterflies
The Mirabal sisters.
Looking for Something?
Here's what the book looks like, in case you forgot.