Based on a true story of the Mirabal sisters and their bravery, In the Time of the Butterflies, is a luminous and an imaginative story of the lives of the four sisters and how it was intertwined with the brutal regime of the Dominican dictator, Trujillo at that time.
Julia Alvarez has infused the truth with her own creativity and has skilfully sketched out each sister’s lives and thoughts.
In the Time of the Butterflies has been told from the point of views of the four Mirabal sisters: Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa. Each sister has her own unique personality and way of thinking which shines through when the story moves through their different point of views.
Patria, since she was young, had been the religious girl, caught between her devotion for her religion and her need for a normal life and later caught between devotion to her husband or the revolutionary cause.
Minerva is the fiesty, bold one who is never ready to compromise and is a true born revolutionary inspired by Che in Cuba. She is how her father described her once, a long time ago, as someone who “should have been born the boy, born to cut loose.”
Dede is the one who is the typical selfless girl who married well and is submissive, thinks the world of her children and does not get involved in the revolutionary outfits her sisters are involved in, partly because of her nature and partly because of her domineering husband.
To the youngest, Maria Teresa, Alvarez gives the most interesting point of view because she grows up through her diary entries. She worships Minerva and aspires to become like her.
Out of the four, the three revolutionaries are killed one night after returning from a visit to their husbands in prison on a stormy night.
And that is in fact what happened in reality.
Because once Trujillo did not like you or thought of you as a thorn on his side or worse if you were going against him, there would be no saving you.
And the Mirabel sisters had been a thorn in his side since a long time.
They had slowly become involved in the underground activities of the revolutionary units that had one goal only: to live in a country free of Trujillo.
They become a symbol of hope and courage and were called “the butterflies” or “Las Mariposas.”
In the Time of the Butterflies however is not just about the country and its revolution. It is about the individual stories of the four sisters.
The story begins with Dede, the one who survived, in the future in 1994. She has become the only survivor of her sisters’ legacy and is often asked by many to give interviews or to take them through the memorial house that the sisters lived in. She is approached by another interviewer and she is telling her and her sisters’ stories to that interviewer at the start of the book while slipping into her own reveries of the past.
And then the novel begins right from the start: from their religious, cocooned and strict childhood to how each went to convent schools or universities or married and had children. The innocence of the earlier parts is slowly marred by the growing despotic rule in the rest of the country.
Each sister’s innocence is shattered by some event or someone explaining to them about the truth behind the country’s ruler. A fact that hitherto they had taken for granted and never challenged.
Steadily each grows into her own and becomes somehow part of the revolution. However, their involvement is not the crux of the story but rather something that happens behind the scenes, in their thoughts, in the consequences they face, their relation with each other and for Maria Teresa, in her diaries.
For me, her diaries entries were the most important part that stood out. Each entry clearly showed how she matured in her understanding from her school days to being a married woman to a revolutionary to someone who was jailed and tortured along with Minerva.
Thus, the story captures the journey of each sister from the tender moments of motherly love to the gruesome ones in prison and to the final conclusion which the reader knows is inevitable.
But not for Dede. She is the one who survived and her grief is that of survival; of having outlived. The novel begins with her and also ends with her, “It’s me, Dede, it’s me, the one who survived to tell the story.” In a way, she is then the one narrator who frames the story.
In the Time of the Butterflies brings to the fore many questions: the role of women, choosing between country and family and how that is a often a particularly female conflict; the idea behind a legacy, making heroes of ordinary people, or how does one gauge loss and pain when one is the only survivor?
The novel also makes us ask what we should be fighting against and what is the role of a revolution, much like how Dede asks years later in her house pondering over the past, “Was it for this, the sacrifice of the butterflies?”
The novel is thus a poignant read that is chronologically constructed (except of course in Dede’s case who slips easily between the present and the past), charting the sisters’ journey and growth over the time period of 1938 to 1963 (and 1994 in Dede’s case) making it yet another unique female bildungsroman that all must read.