At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happening in the 1930s-1960, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world. I know the history and I have seen the movie. But that doesn’t make it any less depressing when the Mirabal sisters die. Well, all but Dede, doomed to be the one who lived. And the husbands all die. And the mother dies. And the father died years ago, likely after-effects of going to prison rather than giving his Minerva to that goat of man.
I love that Alvarez shows these women as women first, even when they couldn’t admit that to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later. The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving each the time to illuminate the exaggerations and omissions of the others. Each chunk of their lives is separated into sections, and the overall effect is that you miss each sister as soon as you leave her. By the time you get to the stuff that’s already been in the papers, you no longer are unsure how asthmatic baby Maria Teresa could be the bold gun-runner who was tortured in prison after she refused a presidential pardon.
Minerva is the natural heroine, for myself as well as a less argumentative general audience. It isn’t hard to see the opinionated, authority-questioning, boundary-pushing Minerva as a revolutionary. After all, once you ask the president (whom you slapped) for permission to be the first woman in your country in law school, hiding explosives in the garden is no bit thing. But Ms. Alvarez did a rare thing with Minerva: she showed how a brave and boastful woman could be so totally broken and vulnerable inside, without losing an inch of her bravery and old self. I have no doubt that Minerva couldn’t always see it, but it is something powerful to see a powerful woman break down as much as she can without losing herself.
I highly recommend In the Time of the Butterflies to anyone who knows anything (or wishes to know) about Dominican or Caribbean history. Also, I think it is our duty as Americans to learn the bits of history that we collectively lie about to ourselves every night so we can fall asleep. While America is only peripherally referenced in the novel, it’s not hard to realize how we fit into the martyrdom of Las Mirabals. Our inaction jumps off every page, as do the allusions to our eventual occupation of the DR.
PS the film starring Salma Hayek as Minerva is also lovely. I watched it while sick one night in the DR, and I think I freaked out whoever it was who came to check on my and found me crying alone in a dark room with my teddy bear. Sorry! It’s just a really heartbreaking story, made all the more so by it being more or less true.
A final note on gender: this book has often been expressed to me as being perhaps too focused on women. It was once a requirement for Shaugnessy’s DR trip I took last year, and apparently the discussions of menstruation, marital woes, and motherhood proved too much for some male readers. Under the category of “sorry I’m not sorry,” I don’t think a book about four women, written from their perspective, needs to explain why there are so many women in the book and why they get so many pages. Also, is it actually emphasizing women that much? Or are we just so not used to female protagonists (and especially ones of such complexity and depth who refuse to be reduced to our usual tropes or to being the props of the men in their lives) that we can’t handle good ones? And finally, I think as a whole we have gotten too comfortable with white, attractive, able-bodied men as our blank protagonists, and the concept of blank protagonists in general. If we want worthwhile minds then we need to read challenging literature, and that requires characters, whether real or imagined, that push us beyond our comfort zone. So stop feeling bad for all the men of the world who do not receive nearly enough coverage in history books, news channels, daily conversations and literature, and push yourself to see the value in the lives of these women, even the parts of their lives that are “icky.”