Taylor is the 2015-2016 St. Joseph Worker volunteer for Mary’s Pence.
There’s little I love better than losing myself in a book, especially on a snowy spring day in Minnesota. I recently turned to the Mary’s Pence reading list from last summer for reading suggestions, and selected Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The novel stood out to me because I enjoy reading historical fiction and stories of women’s lives.
At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is about courage and family, the prices of freedom and regret, and the necessity of sacrifice. Alvarez’s story is a fictional imagining of the daily lives of the true-life Mirabal sisters, who lived in the Dominican Republic under the repressive dictatorship of General Trujillo (1930-1961). The Mirabal sisters were known within the revolutionary movement as Las Mariposas, The Butterflies. The novel switches between the voices of the three sisters who would eventually be assassinated on a lonely mountain road on Trujillo’s orders, and the reminiscences of Dedé, the sole surviving sister.
Alvarez depicts the voices of the sisters in varying stages of their lives, from teenagers in school to young mothers, from women pursuing careers and families to determined revolutionaries.
“I got braver like a crab going sideways. I inched towards courage the best way I could, helping out with the little things.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
Patria is very religious and family-oriented. She’s the oldest, the first to marry, and her experience as a mother is what leads her to finally risk everything, including her husband’s ancestral farm, to rebel against the dictatorship. At first, she tries to stay away from her sisters’ roles in the resistance movement in order to protect her family. But as her eyes are opened, she takes courage inch by inch and joins her sisters so her children can have a safer life.
Dedé is hardworking and nostalgic. She raises her sisters’ children and spends the rest of her life keeping the memory of Las Mariposas alive.
Minerva is the driving revolutionary force of the family. From a young age, she is drawn to stand up for justice. When she learns of Trujillo’s brutality from her school friends, Minerva realizes that, for all her hard-earned independence, she has “just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country,” and she joins other young revolutionaries. In one scene, Minerva tries to free a caged rabbit, only to find that the rabbit refuses to leave its cage. Determined not to become trapped in her own mind by societal expectations, Minerva searches for freedom, first by leaving her family to study and create a life of her own, and then by agitating at the heart of the revolutionary movement.
Mate, the baby of the family, idolizes Minerva and follows her into the underground resistance movement.
“I asked Minerva why she was doing such a dangerous thing. And then, she said the strangest thing. She wanted me to grow up in a free country.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
Alvarez doesn’t portray the sisters as martyrs on pedestals, their courage untouched by the trivia and struggles of daily life. Under Alvarez’s hands, the Mirabal sisters behave like real people. They are women in love, women raising families in less-than-ideal circumstances, women who make mistakes and disagree and do the work that must be done. They are feminist icons as well as revolutionaries, claiming important roles that generally weren’t open to women at the time. Acting in opposition to Trujillo puts their family in danger, threatens their livelihood, and requires tremendous sacrifice of each family member. They don’t always agree on what is the right thing to do, but they stand together.
In the Time of the Butterflies tells us that we can take courage in the everyday choices that we make; more than that, it tells us that we must take courage, lest our fear and silence prop up unjust systems.
The Mirabal sisters stand for many of the values that Mary’s Pence is rooted in: They were community-centered women leaders who dedicated their lives to social justice, worked for the common good and human dignity, and participated in creating change in unjust structures.
For more reading recommendations, check out last summer’s reading list here.