Before We Were Free

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Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to ...

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Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her 12th birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have emigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared without a trace, and the government’s secret police terrorize her remaining family because of their suspected opposition of el Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Using the strength and courage of her family, Anita must overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all that she once knew behind.

From renowned author Julia Alvarez comes an unforgettable story about adolescence, perseverance, and one girl’s struggle to be free.

In the early 1960s in the Dominican Republic, twelve-year-old Anita learns that her family is involved in the underground movement to end the bloody rule of the dictator, General Trujillo.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In what PW called "pitch-perfect narration," in a starred review, a 12-year old girl living in the Dominican Republic in 1960 relates the terrors of her country's regime and the attempt to overthrow Trujillo's dictatorship. Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
In a preliminary letter to the reader, Alvarez, the author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and other well-known novels, notes that this "is a story that I would have lived had I not escaped to this country [the U.S.] when I was ten years old." The dedication is "For those who stayed," and it is indeed a tale of what happened to those Dominicans in 1960 - 61 who were not as lucky as Alvarez. Twelve-year-old Anita has always loved her life in the Dominican Republic, living happily among extended family in a compound, but over a period of a few months, as the dictatorship of General Trujillo and his secret police became harsher and harsher, all but Anita's nuclear family depart hurriedly for the United States. Anita's favorite uncle goes into hiding, and her father and his friends hold secret meetings. The American consul—and his handsome young son, just Anita's age—move in next door to Anita's family, and they feel somewhat protected by his presence. But as the underground resistance movement grows, a movement in which Anita's father plays an important and dangerous role, Anita realizes that their lives are in peril. Not even the maid can be trusted, and gradually their freedom is eroded. When the dictator is murdered, the secret police arrest Anita's father and uncle, and Anita and her mother must hide in a friend's closet for weeks until they can be spirited out of the country. Safe at last in New York, they are devastated when they learn what happened to their loved ones back in the Dominican Republic. There are parallels here to Anne Frank's diary, as Anita, concealed in a closet and frightened for her life, tells of her feelings in her own diary. This is aheart-wrenching tale and Alvarez makes it ring true, as Anita gradually discovers what is going on in her country against the backdrop of her own coming-of-age. An Author's Note at the end supplies some historical background. An important novel for every YA collection. KLIATT Codes: J*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students. 2002, Random House, Alfred A. Knopf., 160p. map.,
— Paula Rohrlick
In the early 1960s, Alvarez's family moved to New York from the Dominican Republic, a country experiencing civil unrest and revolution under the authority of General Trujillo. An earlier Alvarez novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin, 1991), chronicles the lives of the young Garcia girls as they adjust to life in the United States. This book tells the story of their cousin, Anita, who celebrates her twelfth birthday in the year Trujillo is deposed. Her cousins, sister, and friends leave the Dominican Republic, her school closes, and she becomes aware of her family's role in the underground movement. Anita also experiences the pains of growing up—crushes, arguments with her sister, and getting her period. The novel unfolds slowly. Told from Anita's point of view, there are hints of unrest, such as a visit from the secret police, but Anita is kept from understanding what is happening. Consequently, she is naïve, and her story reflects her shallow views. As Anita becomes more aware of the underlying political dangers, she develops into a more reliable narrator, telling a compelling story. Particularly engaging is the diary she keeps while she and her mother are in hiding, revealing the fear of exposure and the boredom of being locked away. The ending emphasizes the sacrifices and the rewards of revolution. Although this book will take a while to involve readers, eventually the story will hold them until the last page. An author's note describes Alvarez's experience and why she wrote the novel. 2002, Knopf, 160p,
— Mary Ann Harlan
School Library Journal
Gr 6-10-By the morning of her 12th birthday, in December, 1960, Anita de la Torre's comfortable childhood in her home in the Dominican Republic is a thing of the past. The political situation for opponents of the dictator Rafael Trujillo has become so dangerous that nearly all of her relatives have emigrated to the U.S., leaving only her uncle, T'o Toni, somewhere in hiding, and her parents, still determined to carry on the resistance. Over the next year, the girl becomes increasingly aware of the nature of the political situation and her family's activities. Once her father's cotorrita, or talkative parrot, she grows increasingly silent. When the dictator is assassinated, her father and uncle are arrested, her older brother is sheltered in the Italian Embassy, and Anita and her mother must go into hiding as well. Diary entries written by the child while in hiding will remind readers of Anne Frank's story. They will find Anita's interest in boys and her concerns about her appearance, even when she and her mother can see no one, entirely believable. Readers will be convinced by the voice of this Spanish-speaking teenager who tells her story entirely in the present tense. Like Anita's brother Mund'n, readers will bite their nails as the story moves to its inexorable conclusion.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A 12-year-old girl bears witness to the Dominican Revolution of 1961 in a powerful first-person narrative. The story opens as Anita's cousins (the Garcia girls of Alvarez's 1991 adult debut, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents), hurriedly pack to leave the country. This signals the end of childhood innocence for Anita. In short succession, her family finds the secret police parked in their driveway; the American consul moves in next door; and her older sister Lucinda is packed off to join her cousins in New York after she attracts the unwelcome attention of El Jefe Trujillo, the country's dictator. Anita's family, it seems, is intimately involved with the political resistance to Trujillo, and she, perforce, is drawn into the emotional maelstrom. The present-tense narrative lends the story a gripping immediacy, as Anita moves from the healthy, self-absorbed naïveté of early adolescence to a prematurely aged understanding of the world's brutality. Her entree into puberty goes hand in hand with her entree into this adult world of terror: "I don't want to be a se-orita now that I know what El Jefe does to se-oritas." According to an author's note, Alvarez (How T'a Lola Came to Visit Stay, 2001, etc.) drew upon the experiences of family members who stayed behind in the Dominican Republic during this period of political upheaval, crafting a story that, in its matter-of-fact detailing of the increasingly surreal world surrounding Anita, feels almost realer than life. The power of the narrative is weakened somewhat by the insertion of Anita's diary entries as she and her mother take shelter in the Italian Embassy after her father's arrest. The first-person, present-tense construction of thediary entries are not different enough from the main narrative to make them come alive as such; instead, the artifice draws attention to itself, creating a distraction. This is a minor quibble with a story that imagines so clearly for American readers the travails of all-too-many Latin nations then and now. (Fiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440237846
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 4/13/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 103,680
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Lexile: 890L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 4.19 (w) x 6.88 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Julia  Alvarez

Julia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic before emigrating to the United States at the age of 10. She now lives in Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.

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    1. Hometown:
      Middlebury, Vermont
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 27, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Middlebury College, 1971; M.F.A., Syracuse University, 1975

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3
Now that the SIM are gone and the Washburns are living next door, Mami and Papi decide we can go back to school.

But first, Mami sits us down. "I don't want you talking about what happened with your friends, she warns.

"Why not?" I want to know.

Mami quotes one of Chucha's sayings, "'No flies fly into a closed mouth.'" The less said, the better. "And that includes talking to Susie and Sammy," Mami adds, eyeing Lucinda and me.

Lucinda has become friends with Sammy's older sister, just as I have with Sammy. Poor Mundín is stuck without a new friend. But he says he doesn't care. Papi is giving him extra responsibility, taking him to work the days we aren't in school. Some nights after supper, Mundín gets to drive the car up and down all the driveways that connect the houses in the compound.

"If anything happens to me," Papi says from time to time, ((you're the man of the house."

"If he wants to be the man of the house, he's going to have to stop biting his nails," Mami says, breaking the tense silence that follows such remarks.

The night before going back to school, I spend a long time picking out my outfit, as if I'm getting ready for the first day of classes. Finally, I settle on the parrot skirt Mami made me in imitation of the poodle skirt all the American girls are wearing. But even after everything is laid out, I feel apprehensive about going back. Everyone will be asking me why I've been absent for over two weeks. I myself don't understand why we weren't able to go to school just because the SIM were on our doorstep. After all, Papi still went to work every day. But Mami has refused to even discuss it.

I go next door to Lucinda's room. My sister is setting her hair in rollers. Talk about torture! How can she sleep with those rods in her hair? For her outfit, she also picked out her skirt just like my parrot skirt, but she insisted on a poodle when Mami made hers.

"Linda Lucinda," I butter her up. "What are we going to tell everyone at school? You know they're going to be asking us where we were."

Lucinda sighs and rolls her eyes at herself in the mirror. She motions for me to come closer. "Don't talk in here," she whispers.

"Why?" I say out loud.

She gives me a disgusted look.

"VAy?" I whisper in her ear.

"Very funny," she says.

I sit around until she's done with her rollers. Then she jerks her head for me to go out on the patio, where we can talk.

"If people ask, just tell them we had the chicken pox, Lucinda says.

"But we didn't."

Lucinda closes her eyes until she regains her patience with me. "I know we didn't have the chicken pox, Anita. It's just a story, okayr,

I nod. "But why didn't we really go to school?"

Lucinda explains that after our cousins' departure, too many upsetting things have been happening and that's why Mami hasn't

wanted us out of her sight. Raids by the SIM, like the one we had; arrests; accidents.

"I heard Papi talking about some accident with butterflies or something, I tell her.

"The Butterflies," Lucinda corrects me, nodding. "They were friends of Papi. He's really upset. Everyone is. Even the Americans are protesting."

"Protesting what? Wasn't it a car accident?"

Lucinda's rolls her eyes again at how little I know. "'Car accident" " she says, making quote marks in the air with her fingers, as if she doesn't really mean what she's saying.

“You mean, they were-"

"Shhh!" Lucinda hushes me.

Suddenly, I understand. These women were murdered in a pre, tend accident! I shiver, imagining myself on the way to school, tumbling down a cliff, my parrot skirt flying up around me. Now I feel scared of leaving the compound. "So why send us to school at all?"

"The Americans are our friends," Lucinda reminds me. "So for now, we're safe."

I don't like the sound of "for now," or how Lucinda makes those quote marks in the air again when she says "we're safe."

Mami is actually a lot calmer now that the Washburns have moved in. Not only is it nice to have the special protection of the consul next door, but the extra rent money is coming in handy. Construcciones de la Torre isn't doing well. Everything is at a standstill because of the embargo, whatever that is. We're having to cut corners and sell off our uncles' cars and the furniture from my grandparents' house from when Papito was making money. I offer to let Mami sell my brown oxfords and old-fashioned jumpers I don't like. But she smiles and says that won't be necessary just yet.

Lucinda and I aren't the only ones to make friends with our neighbors. Manii starts a canasta group to introduce Mrs. Washbum to other Dominican ladies and help her practice her Spanish. Two or three tables are set up on the back patio. The ladies chat in lowered voices. Every once in a while, the new maid, Lorena, comes around with a tray of lemonades or clean ashtrays. Although Mami is trying to save money, there's too much work keeping up with all the houses in the compound for just Chucha. So Mami has hired the young girl to help out. But we have to be extra careful what we say around her.

"Why?" I ask. "Because she's new?"

Mami gives me a look that has "Cotonita! " written all over it. After I told Mami that her nickname for me was really getting on my nerves, she promised to stop using it. But she still lets me know with her eyes when I'm speaking up too much. "Just be careful what you say," Mami repeats.

I guess you can't trust a maid who hasn't changed anyone's diaper in the family!

Actually, I can't really complain about being asked to keep secrets. Sammy and I haven't said a word about our discovery. Twice we've gone back to Tfo Toni's casita only to find the door closed and the padlock in place. But there have been fresh footprints leading to and from the casita and a pile of cigarette butts, as if Someone without an ashtray has thrown them out the window.

"Very fishy," Sammy observes, an expression which he says means that something strange is going on.

Our compound is crawling with fish, all right.

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1. Throughout the book, Anita watches her mother to judge the situation in the compound. Her mother often changes her approach to Anita–sometimes treating her as an adult, sometimes as a child. Why do you feel Anita’s mother does that? How does Anita react, and how do you think she would like to be treated? Do you feel she is old enough to be hearing the truth, or should her mother shelter her more?

2. In the beginning of the book, Anita’s extended family suddenly flees the country, leaving only Anita and her immediate family behind. The family lives in a compound and is extremely close. What role does the family, immediate and extended, play in this book? Does Anita realize that not everyone has the relationship her family experiences?

3. Anita is at a stage of her life where questioning authority becomes a common occurrence. In this book, there are several different authority figures that are forcing her to behave in certain ways, such as the government, the opposition army, and her family. How does she deal with this authority? How does she get around some of the rules?

4. Anita and her sister have a typical relationship that most readers can understand. Does this attitude toward each other represent a determination to keep a certain level of normalcy in a very frightening and often dangerous situation? How do both of their attitudes change once the quinceañera occurs?

5. Discuss the importance of the compound in this book, specifically the loss of the family’s freedom to go outside the gates, as well as the areas inside the compound that were off limits.

6. In order to shield the rest of the family, Anita’s fatherand the group running the opposition speak outside of the house, not realizing that Anita’s window is right next to their meeting place. How did hearing these conversations affect Anita? Do you feel she was better off knowing the truth, or did the whole situation make her grow up faster than necessary?

7. After the compound becomes unsafe for Anita and her family, Anita and her mother secretly move to a safe house location and live in a closet. Compare this experience to historical events that caused people to go into hiding, to be detained because of their beliefs or nationalities, and to be threatened with death. Is there any particular person that she reminds you of?

8. Anita befriends an American boy, Sam. At her tender age of 12, she is divided between her child-like view of the world and her adult emotions. How does her ever-changing view of life affect her relationship with Sam and with her friend Oscar, who is from her country?

9. What role does American culture play in this novel? Specifically, discuss the quinceañera and the Sweet Sixteen rites of passage and the idea that Anita and her family recognize American holidays, such as Thanksgiving.

10. At the end of the novel, Anita has lost some of her family to the violence in her native country. How does she feel about the sacrifice that her family had to make? Does she truly understand the impact that her family made on her country’s history?

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Julia Alvarez on Before We Were Free:

Q. We learn in your author's note that this story was inspired by your own and your family's experience in the Dominican Republic. How much of a role did your own memories and the true stories you heard play in the writing of the book?

A. My father was involved in the underground against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. When members of his immediate "cell" were rounded up, we had to leave in a hurry for the United States. But my uncle, who was also involved in the underground, and his family remained. Some members of the group who assassinated the dictator went to my uncle's house to hide. When they were caught, my uncle was also taken away. My aunt and cousins lived under house arrest for nine months, not knowing if my uncle was dead or alive. He survived, but the members who had hidden in his house were killed by the dictator's son. These men were very close friends of my family. In fact, growing up, I called them tíos, uncles; their kids were my playmates. So you see, I had some connection to what actually happened. In writing the book, I conducted interviews with survivors, and I also read a lot of the history. I was particularly interested in the sons and daughters of those who had been tortured, imprisoned, or murdered–kids like my cousins and my childhood playmates. So it was a composite both of doing research and of remembering family stories.

Q. In what ways did having a real, historical context make the writing process more difficult, and in what ways did it make it easier?

A. When people ask me about writing historical fiction or writingfiction–what do I prefer? which is harder?–I think each kind of book presents its own type of challenges. Certainly knowing the general landscape of what has happened gives you a story that has already somehow been charted. The challenge becomes how to tell the story within that charted landscape. But in a story that is mostly fictionalized, you have to map out that landscape in your head. In actual fact, these two categories are often mixtures: what you've read, what you know of history, and what has happened help structure the totally fictionalized story; and what you imagine and invent and embellish helps fictionalize the historical story–otherwise you'd be a historian instead of a novelist.

Q. What is the political situation in the Dominican Republic today, in 2003?

A. We now have a working democracy with all the ills attendant to the fact that it's a young democracy. We don't have a long and tested tradition of civic participation and public service. Enfranchisement takes time; it's not just a revolution happening, and then, okay: we're free! You have to build that habit of freedom over generations, that sense of empowerment that comes with believing that your vote counts; that you, the citizens, are the ones in charge of your country; that politicians are serving you, not themselves. We're still trying to make it work, but I think that the dedication to making it work is what makes a democracy. So in some ways you can say the sacrifice that these men and women and their families made to bring about this freedom has been successful.

Q. In the book Anita's parents insist on staying in the country to fight for change. Have you continued to be committed to and involved in the future of the Dominican Republic? Do you view the writing of this book as a part of that commitment?

A. Definitely. My husband and I now have an organic coffee farm [in the Dominican Republic that is] part of a cooperative of small farmers trying to save the land from erosion and pesticides. We set it up as a foundation so that the proceeds from the sale of our coffee go to fund a school on the farm. We did this when we realized that none of our neighbors could read or write: ninety-five percent illiteracy in that area! I feel so very lucky to have the opportunities we have in this country. But we can't stop there. We have a responsibility to those who are less lucky. I know I feel a special commitment to those who stayed behind in my native country, fighting for freedom and opportunities. The other way I'm still involved in my native land is by writing. I think of myself very much as an all-American writer: my roots, my rhythms, my history, my background come from the southern part of the Americas. The language that I've learned to craft and the life that I've constructed, by historical accident because of my parents' emigration, come from the northern part of the Americas. I combine both of those traditions. In fact, you might notice how sometimes in answering these questions, I'll say "we," meaning the Dominican Republic, or "we," meaning the United States! But ultimately, the commitment is to all of us in the human family. I really feel that as a writer, my "job" is to add to that treasure box of all our stories and poems and songs, which belongs to all of us.
Q. We often forget that through all major historical and political events, ordinary people, including children, are living their lives. What do you think is the effect on children who live in places that are politically unstable, or marked by violence and strife?

A. We often think of the victims of oppression as the actual martyrs and heroes–grown men and women who might form part of a freedom-fighting group or who are forced into hiding. But there are invisible victims and casualties: the children who are growing up in these repressive and terrifying and violent situations, who are robbed of their childhood. They don't ever get the opportunity to be children, to be nurtured, to have faith in freedom and trust in goodness, to enjoy that innocent sense of possibility and promise. And, of course, many of these children endure immediate losses: fatherless and motherless and auntless and uncleless children left behind when we destroy families, the fabric of a society.

As Americans, I think we're very aware of the genocide and destruction that happened in Europe, the young casualties of the Holocaust, all those World War II children for whom UNICEF was originally created. But we're less knowledgeable about what happened in our own hemisphere in the second half of the last century: the dozens of dictatorships and repressive regimes that afflicted the South American countries. In 1972 there were only three democracies in all of Latin America. That's not so long ago, you know! In reviewing historical fiction for young readers, I found many powerful narratives on the Holocaust, on slavery in this country, but I could find very little for young people about our own hemisphere's recent history. That was what really pushed me to write Before We Were Free. I wanted to tell the story of our Anne Frank on this side of the Atlantic.

Q. As the situation in the story becomes increasingly grave, Anita becomes almost silent. As you wrote this, did you view Anita's reaction as typical, as well as symbolic?

A. You do things sometimes as you write out of a writerly instinct–something will feel right or seem in character, but you don't think about it analytically. I remember reading memoirs by survivors and reports of children who have suffered trauma–I remember being struck by how some of these victims responded with silence. I have a sister who works in Boston with Latin American refugees, many of whom have survived the burning of their villages, the torture and death of family members. My sister tells me that she knows that her patients are going to get better when they can tell the story of what happened to them. So the silencing of those who have lived in terror is not just an external thing; it's also a way in which the whole self shuts down. Anita's silence is symbolic of what is happening to her country.

Q. Obviously, the actions taken by Anita's father and uncle and their group are controversial and extreme. Assassination is a frightening form of political action. What do you hope readers learn from the events in the book?

A. It's very interesting that in the Dominican Republic, we don't use the word assassination in referring to Trujillo's death. We use a word you don't have in English: ajusticiamento, which means "bringing to justice." Dominicans feel that Trujillo's death was not murder; murder suggests that he was the victim of a crime. Dominicans believe that Trujillo was the criminal and the act of his removal was a just act. You have to remember that after thirty-one years of repression, there was no court of law or other institution not ruled by the dictator and his secret police to which Dominicans could go to address injustices. So assassination was the last and only resort. Of course, Anita is horrified because she has been taught murder is wrong, and here her own father and uncle are going to kill someone. And in a way, Anita is right. One of the reasons that I wanted to tell the story from a young person's view is that young people often bring a freshness and clarity to historical events. We might give assassination another name, but it's still violence. But what do you do when a situation becomes that intolerable, that extreme? Historically, people have had to take up arms in order to be free. Think of the United States, the patriots of the American revolution, that's what they did: they took up arms against the oppressor England. But now, taking up arms can mean destroying thousands of innocents, if not the whole planet. I'm becoming more and more of a pacifist. We've got to evolve other ways of addressing our differences and of taking care of our human family. One way to avoid violence is to be informed, to read stories that awaken us to problems before they become unbearable realities.

Q. At first, Anita is ignorant of the political strife in her country. In the small world of her family and friends, everything is fine, and she assumes everything is fine everywhere else as well. Is this a common assumption among young people?

A. Often, we can be informed about some problem, but it's only when it begins to touch us in a personal way that we become impassioned and convinced about the rightness or wrongness of a situation. In a dictatorship, for instance, where all media are controlled, the news is often suppressed. So until oppression affects your own family, you might not even know that things are "that bad." That's what societies that aren't free do: they separate us from each other's stories. That great American motto comes to mind: United we stand, divided we fall. Of course, now with the amazing technology we have, we can know things even if we aren't affected personally. Think of the war in Iraq, where we had embedded journalists–we were right there. It's a real challenge for all of us, not just young people: to look beyond our own self-interest. Robert Desnos, a French poet who died in a concentration camp, once said that the task of being a human being was "not only to be one's self, but to become each one." That's what compassion and freedom are all about.

Q. Can learning about others and becoming more politically aware really make a difference? Where do we start?

A. I touched on this in my response to your last question. I often think of that biblical phrase: "The truth shall make you free," and also that wonderful quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Young people as well as older people need to know the stories of their families, their communities, their countries, each other, because it's a way to be aware and experience the realities of others. In dictatorships, there is always only one story: the official story no one can contradict. All other stories are silenced. It's the knowing of each other's stories and the feeling and compassion created by knowing these stories that connect us as individuals to each other and make a humane human family out of different populations and countries and ethnicities.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Throughout the book, Anita watches her mother to judge the situation in the compound. Without any direct source of information, this is the only way she can try to figure out what is going on. Has there ever been a time when you’ve needed to watch someone else’s reaction, or interpret their behavior, to understand a situation?

2. Alvarez writes in the first person, and at points in the form of entries in Anita’s diary. Why do you think she chooses this perspective? How does it affect your reading of the book?

3. Anita’s mother often changes her approach to Anita–sometimes treating her as an adult, sometimes as a child. Why do you think she does that? Is Anita old enough to hear the truth? How much would you tell a small child in a situation like this, and why?

4. During the earlier stages of the story, Anita is sheltered in her family compound and doesn’t seem to realize the severity of the political situation in her country. When she learns the truth, she’s surprised. Do you think children are often oblivious to the larger reality around them? As you’ve aged, how have your perceptions and feelings about your government, society, and the world changed? Do you wish you’d known more–or less–as a young child?

5. Anita is at a stage in life when questioning authority becomes common. In this book, several authority figures–the government, the opposition army, her family–force her to behave in certain ways. What are the different ways in which she deals with these authorities? How does she get around some of the rules? Think about the different authorities in your life–which of them matter the most? Do you have different ways of handling each?

6. Anita befriends an American boy, Sam. At the age of twelve, she feels divided between a more innocent view of the world and her increasingly adult perspective. How does her ever-changing view of life affect her relationship with Sam and with her friend Oscar, who comes from her country? Look back on some earlier romances or problems in your own life–how do they seem to you now? Do you still think about them? If your attitudes have altered, what caused the change?

7. What role does American culture play in this novel? Why do you think Anita and her family recognize American holidays, such as Thanksgiving? How does the Dominican quinceañera compare to the American “Sweet Sixteen” tradition? In what ways have traditions from different places or cultures mixed in your life?

8. Is this the first time you have ever read about the political history of the Dominican Republic? Have you learned much about South America or Central America in school or from the media? Why do you think certain histories and regions get more or less attention in schools and the media? Who makes those decisions, and what problems do they present? What can you do about this?

9. Anita’s family takes great risks and plans serious action in their fight against the dictatorship. What do you think of the actions taken, especially the assassination of the dictator? How do we decide what is ethical or moral under circumstances like these? Think about a political act or an international conflict in your own time. What questions were asked–or should have been asked–before it was undertaken? Have there ever been certain ethical questions or feelings that made you “think twice” about a conflict in your own life?

10. At the end of the novel, Anita has lost some of her family to the violence in her native country. How does she feel about the sacrifice her family has had to make? Do you think she truly understands the impact her family has had on her country’s history? Has your own life or the lives of those you love been affected by violence (think about terrorism, war, crime, domestic violence)?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 73 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2008

    Amazingly Amazing. I Loved this Book!!

    I found the book to have a little bit of everything in it. It had culture, suspense, sad moments, and good times. I'm not Hispanic myself, but there were plenty things I could relate to other than the hardships Anita and her family went through dealing with their dictator. I think everyone can gain something from this book. I don't think you should consider it boring, but then again that's your opinion. Personally, I think a book can't be boring, it just might not be your type of book because all authors strive to catch a reader's attention.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2012

    A great way to teach Dominican history to young kids

    As a Dominican-American, it was truly refreshing to read the impact the Trujillo dictatorship had through the eyes of a young girl. Julia Alvarez was really able to capture her own biographical narrative in this touching story.

    I look forward to having my own child read this story and allow him or her to learn about that terrible part of our Dominican history.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2010

    An Engrossing Tale that Tugs at your Heart-Strings

    Random House, Inc. publishing company made the right decision in publishing Julia Alvarez's 2002 novel, Before We Were Free. In this engrossing 163-page novella, the reader follows the struggle of 12-year-old Anita and her family's grueling quest for freedom. As the narrator of the story, it is easy to begin to understand and feel for Anita. Being the daughter of a hero radically opposing the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, she feels pressure that should never be felt by a girl of her age. All she wants is to be free, and that means leaving her country for the United States. Throughout the novel she survives things that even the strongest of people would find horrifying, living in appalling conditions and suffering great losses. Most will find it difficult to resist gaining respect for this resilient young girl. Anita, too, must face the difficult challenge of growing up while in the midst of her fight for freedom. The reader quickly develops affection for Anita as she awkwardly makes the jump from child to young woman. Because she keeps a diary, you get to know her innermost secrets and look into her world and the emotions she feels while going through such a confusing time, and therefore it is as though you connect with her on a very personal level. I liked the book because of its surprising twists and turns, which kept me captivated and itching to read on. At one point, the book turns into Anita's Diary for a few pages, which was unique and provided further insight into her mind. From watching her fall in love (more than once) to finding out about her family's double life, I was constantly on the edge of my seat. The ending was phenomenal. Julia Alvarez uses stunning symbolism here, as Anita stares out of her window looking at the snow angels she had made earlier. "What I see as I look down aren't angels but butterflies, the arm swings connecting to the leg swings like a pair of wings, our heads poking out in between! I'm sure if Chucha were here, she would say they are a sign. Four butterflies from Papi, reminding me to fly." Flying to freedom and away from her dictator are all she strives for through the entire story. This little metaphor was both cute and meaningful, illustrating her drive to be free. I learned a lot from this book. For example, I never knew how desperate the people of the Dominican Republic were or how they were treated. I found out that people actually suffered the trauma represented through the book, and were driven to almost unthinkable things. I learned a few Spanish words as well, that were scattered in italics throughout the novel. I would recommend this book to anyone who would enjoy a thrilling novel that makes you think. It's a gut-wrenching and suspenseful tale that makes you feel like you are there seeing and experience the unjust treatment plaguing the impoverished country of the Dominican Republic. Before We Were Free is a quick, easy read that could be enjoyed by most.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2008

    An outstanding novel

    Julia ALverez's Before We Were Free is an excellend and very exciting novel. The book is about a young girl names Anita de la torre. Anita is a 12 year old girl who grew up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Jrujillo in the 1960's. Her whole life Anita has lived in a family compound built by her grandfather. Each time one of her cousins or other relatives married her grandfather would build another house in the compound. Anitas grandparents recently emmigrated for New York to get out of the country but she had no idea why. The contry is going through a tough time under the cruel dictatorship of Trujillo. Anitas uncle Tio Toni has to go into hiding and stay out of public. Anitas cousins and the rest of their families have also emmigrated for New York. The compound is almost completely empty with the departure of Anitas relatives. All that remains are Anita, Lucinda her sister, Mundin her brother, her mom, her dad, Chucha and Tio Toni shows up from time to time. Soon after Anitas faily and their house are searched and raided by the SIM secret police. They are watched for weeks and papa is also followed to work by a couple of all black volkswagons. The only thing Anita can do to feel free is write down everything in her diary. A couple weeks after the raid Anita and her family are getting new neighbors, the Washburn family. Anita and her family feel a lot more comfortable now that the secret police have left. After this many events come into place, Anita meets the Washburns son Sam and realizes she has met her first love, after recieving flowers from the cruel Trujillo Anitas sister Lucinda is deported out of the Donican Republic so she is not taken away from her family, Mundin now has to live with the Italian embassador now that the family is in danger, and after all the secret talk in Tio Tonis casseta him and papi set out to kill Trujillo. Now Anits and her mother cannot even stay in their home. They remain in their friends closet in hiding for months only coming out to eat scraps of food and to drink. Throughout this book Anita is growing up very fast. She is starting to realize what is going on around her but all she wants to do is gain her freedom. I really enjoyed this book. My mind got captured into the story and my attention was grabbed by the interesting writing style of the author. I would definetely recommend this book because it teaches people a lot of knowledge about the horrific yet exciting struggle of Dominican families during the dictatorship of Trujillo. I learned from this book to keep fighting for what you believe in and dont give up.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2008

    Page Turner

    Anita de la Torre is a 12 year old girl from the Dominican Republic. The dictator of her country is cruel and brutal. Anita's father and Tio Toni have put together a group of the Dominican's bravest men to take down the infamous leader, Trujillo. This secret organization is being watched closely by the SIM, or secret police. If anyone found out about the secret organization, or its plan, Anita's whole family would be murdered. Most of Anita's relatives have already fled to the United States to protect their lives. The only family she has left in the D.R. is her mother, father, brother, Chucha, and Lucinda. Chucha has been the family's maid since Anita was a baby. Chucha has a premonition about the events to come in the following year, she tells Anita that Anita, her mother, her brother, and Anita's sister will all spread their wings and fly home soon. As the secret organization comes closer to bringing down the dictator, things around the de la Torre house hold become very tense. Anita starts to feel like she is being treated like a child because no one wants to explain the horrific things that are happening. Also Anita's mother is trying to protect her from worrying, fearing she is too young to handle what could be a fatal outcome of the mens plans. Anita is not to worried about whats going on around her, not just because she doesn't completely understand, but because the United States consul just moved in next door. The consul has a son Anita's age named Sammy. Anita thinks she has fallen in love with Sammy and they become best friends. But when the consul gets involved with the secret plans of the group, they flee back to the U.S. for safety. Anita is heart broken, losing yet another loved one to the U.S. Previous to Sammy's departure, Anita's older sister was sent to the U.S. because she was being watched by Trujillo. Trujillo kept many young women hidden at his golf club, because he knew that his wife would never find his young love interests there. Lucinda was quickly sent to live with her aunt and uncle in New York, avoiding becoming one of Trujillo's women. Will the men over throw the dictator? Will they live to see their country freed? Will Anita spread her wings and fly? I highly recommend Before We Were Free because its a very interesting book. There's a lot of twists and turns in this novel, and it will leave you hungry for more. Julia Alvarez leaves you hanging on her every word, and with each new chapter, comes a new outlook on life.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    This book is great!

    The book is great because it shows how to become an American citizen and how bad it feels to move from your friends and family that came from there.You are going to miss your school,friends,and home.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2012

    Andrew Shields Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (published

    Andrew Shields
    Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (published in 2007) was an interesting novel written in the first person perspective of a twelve year old girl named Anita. The story takes place from 1960 to 1961 in the Dominican Republic while under the brutal dictatorship of Trujillo. Anita is a normal twelve year old girl living a happy life with a large and stable family. But that all changes very quickly as she starts to notice that many members of her family are beginning to disappear. She is left confused by this and because of the constant coming and going of her father and uncle tony. She soon learns that her father and uncle were part of a big plot to murder the dictator. Uncle tony has gone missing, the rest of the family has left for New York and Anita and her mother are left at the house. They are there hiding from the secret police that come and raid there house. 
    Anita receives a diary for Christmas and begins writing all of her thoughts, feelings and experiences in it. This really paints a clear image in the reader’s head of just how frightened Anita must have been. Anita is forced to grow up very fast and as the book progresses you can really see her grow to be a mature young woman. Throughout the book she shows incredible courage trying to get a hold of freedom. During this struggle she says “I wonder what it would be like to be free? Not to need wings because you don't have to fly away from your country?” This quote really makes you realize how a lot of us take freedom for granted and don’t understand that the struggle families like Anita’s went through during this period of dictatorship. 
    I enjoyed reading this book because although there were some slow points, the majority of the novel was very interesting and I found myself very engrossed in the book. Alvarez did a great job writing this book, Anita was a great choice for narrator and I really enjoyed how she had a diary that she wrote her thoughts and feelings down in. This gave the reader a clear understanding of how Anita was feeling throughout the story.
     Julia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic during the time that Trujillo was the dictator. Although she was able to leave at age 10, she knew people that were forced to stay just like Anita and was informed of the struggle they went through just to survive. I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a short but interesting novel or anyone who is looking into learning about the hard times in the Dominican Republic with Trujillo as a dictator.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Great and interesting book

    It's a touching book and I recommend it to everyone.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2014

    Good read

    It was an interesting read about a time in history I knew very little about.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 28, 2011


    This book constructively portrays the history of my Dominican Republic in an entertaining yet realistic manner. Loved it, Alvarez is an illustrious author, my absolute favorite.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 24, 2011

    Highly rec. if u r interested & up to date about the Dominican politics.Have met author. She writes from experience. Definitely moving story

    Have read the books written before & after. This makes sense if you have read In the time of the Butterflies & are interested in the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic--which I am..

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2002

    Before We Were Free

    Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom growing up in the Dominican Republic. By her 12th birthday, her relatives start disappearing to the United States, her home is frequently searched by the secret police, and her family is forced into hiding. Suddenly she must struggle to overcome her fears and fly to freedom, leaving all she once knew behind. Julia Alvarez¿s way of capturing a reader and enabling them to feel like they are part of the story is unrivaled. She gives young readers a glimpse of what a life is like where a dictator¿s picture hangs on walls in every home, and young girls are hidden from his dangerous eyes. She opens the book slowly, and gently reveals to the reader some of the harsh realities of life under a dictator. In the book, the author follows one girl¿s journey throughout an entire year of life in an environment where she never knows what is going to happen next, and her and her family are constantly living in fear. Through this time period Anita learns some of the graphic truths about her family and her freedom as a citizen of the Dominican Republic, and is forced to overcome her fears and do things she has never imagined before. Alvarez gives the reader a good sense of what living under a dictatorship was like at the time, but also gives the reader a good idea of the relationship between Anita¿s family, as is visible when Anita¿s father pleads to her, ¿I want my children to be free, no matter what. Promise me you¿ll spread your wings and fly.¿ When I read this book, I connected it to other books and events that have taken place in the world¿s history. For example, when Anita and her mother were in hiding, and Anita kept a diary to pass the time, I was reminded of Anne Frank when she was in hiding during World War II in Amsterdam. Anne also kept a diary which, unlike Anita¿s, is now world famous. Anita and Anne were very similar in many ways, because both of their lives changed before their eyes and they had to learn to live in a way they had never known before. Both girls also did not get along well with their mothers during the time they were in hiding, although they became closer later on. Overall, I felt that Anita de la Torre and Anne Frank were very similar in more ways than one. Although I was able to get into this book from the very beginning, there are some strategies that a reader can use to help them to better understand the text. Alvarez writes in such detail that it easy for the reader to constantly visualize what they are reading. As I was reading, I felt that applying this strategy helped me to feel as if I was really there in the Dominican Republic with Anita and her family. Having never lived in a country other than the United States, this was an extremely important strategy because I had to imagine what it was like in a country where there aren¿t big buildings and shopping malls everywhere, where it is always hot, and the people aren¿t like the people I have been exposed to in the United States. Most importantly, I have never lived under a dictatorship where my freedoms are stripped from me and I don¿t have half the rights I do in the United States, which is why visualizing is such a key strategy when reading this book. Because of my lack of knowledge about this country, I tried to use the little I do know about dictatorships and other countries like the Dominican Republic to help me as I read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2014

    If i could give this 0 stars i would

    I read this for seventh grade summer reading and the whole time i wanted to throw my nook out the window! Exclamation marks were way over used but their weren't used where they should have been. The story is okay but the writting style sucks! I DON'T recomend it

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2012


    I will warn you right now, this not a book for boys! This is a wonderful coming of age story. I would recommend this book for ages 12 and up.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2011

    Bad book, but good writer

    Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez is a book I would not recommend. The beginning was slow to read, and only after page 98 did it become more interesting. Before that this historical fiction was not a page turner or a book I was rushing to finish. Once you read past the information and descriptions of the characters in the first part of the book, it turns into a slightly better story.
    With all the reviews I read prior to selecting this book I did not think it would have included anything about puberty. "In fact, I'm not a señorita, as I haven¿t gotten my period yet.¿(page 59). The paragraph and other parts of the book continue on with information that was not relevant to the book at all. I found it strange to have paragraphs like this randomly mentioned throughout the book. I never would have guessed it was in there when I first picked up the book, and I don¿t think it needed to be included in the book.
    Also, there were some groups in the book whose significance were never clarified. ¿Long live the butterflies!¿ (page 98). I figured they would tell us who the butterflies were somewhere in the book, but it never did. It confused me because the butterflies were brought up quite often. Another group that was never revealed who they were was the SIM. ¿I can¿t talk about the SIM¿s visit or my cousins¿ leaving for New York.¿ (page 30). Throughout the book they only refer to them as the SIM and I never knew who the really were. All that was revealed was that they worked for the government but I did not know why or who they were, which got confusing.
    Another thing that bothered me was the different styles of writing Alvarez used. During most of the book she wrote in first person as the events were happening, towards the end she switched it to just diary entries. I do not think that it was necessary to change to just all diary entries. There seemed to be better language and more information in her regular style writings.
    There were some good things in this book, I liked how well the characters were described. I also enjoyed the insight into the 1960¿s troubles in Puerto Rico and their history. I also liked her use of metaphors. I felt like I knew Anita and was friends with her at some points in the story. Also, I learned about the history or Puerto Rico and how El Jefe controlled the land. Although it did not explain what some of the Spanish words used meant, I was left guessing or looking them up which distracted me from the flow of the story and history about her family and the country. Sometimes it said it after in english and sometimes it did not. I was annoyed that it was not consistent. My overall favorite part of the book was the great metaphors Alvarez used as on page 103. ¿The organ music plays on, like a funeral that will not quit.¿ I loved this metaphor and thought it was great and fit what was happening well. She was like an artist with her words throughout the book and seems like a talented author.
    This is the first book I have read by Julia Alvarez. Although I did not really like the book, I think she is a great writer. The book had a slow beginning, randomly thrown in information, choppy points and chapters, but Alvarez did include some great metaphors, similes, language and background information into Puerto Rico¿s history. The history, types of writing and plot of the story just did not fit together well. This book would not be highly recommended by me to read, but I would recommend reading other

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 22, 2011

    Loved it!

    Love her writing style and this book!

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2010

    Inspiring and Captivating! A book you must read

    Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez is an interesting and gripping novel for many reasons. It tells the story of twelve-year old Anita de la Toree in the 1960's. Her and her family and friends are living in the Dominican Republic, and are living through the civil unrest and revolution under the authority of General Trujillo. Anita's cousins, sister, and friends are forced to leave the Dominican Republic, her school closes, and she eventually must hide from the secret police that are terrorizing families because of suspected resistance to General Trujillo. Anita writes in her journal, "We're in the crawl space- and I'm scribbling down this note by flashlight just in case anyone finds this diary- There was a huge roar in the backyard like a plane landing- now a crashing sound at the downstairs door- Oh my god- they're coming through the house!!!!- My hand is shaking so hard- but I want to leave this record just so the world knows-" (Alvarez, 137). Anita soon finds that no one can be trusted and she must suffer through life as her freedom is taken away from her and her people. She quickly discovers her own family's part in a secret movement against their leader, and while all this is going on, she is growing into a young woman.
    Next, Anita experiences crushes and learns how to grow up. Told through Anita's point of view, Alvarez shows a story of a young girl growing up through extreme transformations with herself and her country. Anita says toward the end of the novel, ".it doesn't seem scary to die, I think it's scarier to be alive, especially when you feel that you'll never be as happy and carefree as when you were a little kid" (Alvarez, 162). This quote expresses that Anita goes through things that make her realize that life is tough, it's not always going to be fun and relaxed. Next, earlier on in the story, her mother reassures Anita by stating, "And someday, we will be free, and all your cousins and aunts and uncles will come back and thank us" (Alvarez, 52). Also, Anita says, "The emptiness inside starts filling with a strong love and a brave pride" (Alvarez 163). These statements express the sacrifices one has to make for the people we love and the immense pride and gratitude people can have for others.
    Although written in English, Julia Alvarez uses many cultural words and phrases through out the novel, such as, "Es mi hijita", or it's my little girl. Before We Were Free is inspiring and captivating. I read it for a school project and I soon found that I couldn't put it down. Towards the end it emphasizes on the hardships of life and the risks and challenges a person must go through to help others. This novel tells the tale of a strong, young girl who was forced to grow up much to fast and her family as they stuck close together and stayed strong. Lastly, it can inspire readers to realize how much they have and to not take anything for granted. If you enjoy compelling and heartwarming stories, then Before We Were Free is the book for you.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Before We Were Free

    Anita is almost twelve years old, and can't wait to grow up. But now that she stands on the edges of the adult world, nothing seems so simple and so good anymore. El Jefe, whom she once thought the great leader of her country, is a monster. Her parents and their friends speak in code. Everyone is afraid. Change is coming, not just for Anita, but for her family and the Dominican Republic, and Anita must find the courage to face it.

    Before We Were Free is an engaging portrait of a young girl's growing awareness of what it means to live in the Dominican Republic dictatorship. Despite a bit of a slow start, Julia Alvarez does an excellent job of drawing the reader into the scary, sad, and sweet moments that shape Anita's adolescence.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Book

    Before we were Free by Julia Alvarez was published in 2007 and shows the true struggle of freedom and emotion. The book takes place in the 1960's in the Dominican Republic under the cruel dictatorship of Trujillo. The narrator which is Anita de la Torre a twelve year old girl living in her family compound of her parents,siblings,cousins,uncle,aunts and the Washburns. Anita is confused with the coming and going of her Father and her Tio Toni, strange phone calls and the always talking of butterflies. Anita is now no longer confused of the meaning of butterflies when the SIM (secret police) raid the compound. Anita soon learns her family is part of an underground group plotting against there countries dictator. Anita now has no freedom being constantly watched by the SIM and knowing that if they discover anything about her family her family will be murdered. Soon the SIM finds the assasinated dictator in the familys car. Her family is now being ripped apart and arrested by the dozens. Anita and her mother are the only ones left and Anita doesn't know what will happen to her country, her family and her life.

    I liked this book and would recommend it because the book reminded me of the diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank and Anita have so much in common in the emotional pain and the fight for freedom. Much of Before we were Free is like Anne Frank book because many chapters in before we were free have a diary like format. Overall i enjoyed this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 14, 2009

    Before We Were Free :Review

    Julia Alverez's novel Before We Were Free is about a 12 year old girl named Anita de la Torre. Anita grew up in the Dominican Republic in a compound with her family. Growing up Anita has so many things she wants to do before she turns 13. She seems to have a very normal life at first but, when her father and Tío Toni start talking about the "butterflies", things get complicated for Anita and her family.
    The secrecy of the "butterfly" meetings, and what they were, caused trouble throughout the compound. Not long after all the talk of the "butterflies", the Sim men or secret police came and raided the compound and all the homes of the family members. The dictator Trujillo, a cruel and brutal man, starts controversy with men for his intolerable actions toward women. Tío Toni, Anita's father and their friends created a plot to get rid of their dictator for what he has done. This secret association is being watched closely under the eye of the Sim, or the secret police. If discovered Anita and her whole family would have to be murdered, so the family went into hiding. The secret police discover the assassinated dictator in one of the family member's car, and Tío Toni, Anita's father, and brother are taken away. Anita and her mother have no other option but to abandon their once safe and comforting home in order to survive.
    I enjoyed this novel very much, it shows the many problems and challenges that Anita and her family must go through to survive and keep the secrets of the family. Anita and her mother had given up all their rights of freedom which shows their bravery and courage of what they will do to live. This book is a reminder to me that you don't know how good you have it until you have to give it all up. It also shows what people will do for what they believe in and what they will do to protect their family from harm. If you need a change in pace Before We Were Free is a novel I recommend to everybody and anybody.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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