In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies

4.3 234
by Julia Alvarez

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It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael… See more details below


It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies.”

In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters—Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé—speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
During the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, three young women, members of a conservative, pious Catholic family, who had become committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the regime, were ambushed and assassinated as they drove back from visiting their jailed husbands. Thus martyred, the Mirabal sisters have become mythical figures in their country, where they are known as las mariposas (the butterflies), from their underground code names. Herself a native of the Dominican Republic, Alvarez ( How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents ) has fictionalized their story in a narrative that starts slowly but builds to a gripping intensity. Each of the girls--Patria, Minerva and Maria Terese (Mate) Mirabal--speaks in her own voice, beginning in their girlhood in the 1940s; their surviving sister, Dede, frames the narrative with her own tale of suffering and dedication to their memory. To differentiate their personalities and the ways they came to acquire revolutionary fervor, Alvarez takes the risk of describing their early lives in leisurely detail, somewhat slowing the narrative momentum. In particular, the giddy, childish diary entries of Mate, the youngest, may seem irritatingly mundane at first, but in time Mate's heroism becomes the most moving of all, as the sisters endure the arrests of their husbands, their own imprisonment and the inexorable progress of Trujillo's revenge. Alvarez captures the terrorized atmosphere of a police state, in which people live under the sword of terrible fear and atrocities cannot be acknowledged. As the sisters' energetic fervor turns to anguish, Alvarez conveys their courage and their desperation, and the full import of their tragedy. 40,000 first printing; $40,000 ad/promo; reprint rights to NAL; 20-city author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Alvarez's award-winning first novel (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, LJ 5/1/91) is more than matched by her second. Butterflies is based on the lives of the four Mirabel sisters (code name: "Mariposas," that is, butterflies), three of whom were martyred in 1960 during the liberation of the Dominican Republic from the dictator Trujillo. Through the surviving sister, Ded, as well as memories of Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa, we discover the compelling forces behind each sister's role in the struggle for freedom. As Alvarez says "A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart." Though murder, torture, and imprisonment are ever-present, she wisely choses to focus on the personal lives of these young wives and mothers, full of love, beauty, and, especially, hope. Highly recommended for its luminescence and relevance.-Rebecca S. Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights
The Dallas Morning News

"A magnificent treasure for all cultures and all time." —St. Petersburg Times
People Magazine
"A gorgeous and sensitive novel . . . A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion." —People
The Denver Post

"A fascinating and powerful picture of a family and a nation’s history." —The Dallas Morning News
St. Petersburg Times

"A gorgeous and sensitive novel . . . A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion." —People
From the Publisher

"Imagination and history in sublime combination . . . Read this book for the novel it is. Read this book for the place it takes you. Read this book and take courage." —The Denver Post

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt

In the Time of Butterflies

By Julia Alvarez

Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco Media

Copyright ©1995 Julia Alvarez
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0606192069

Chapter One


circa 1943

She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car. The woman will never find the old house behind the hedge of towering hibiscus at the bend of the dirt road. Not a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names! Dedi had taken the call over at the little museum this morning.

Could the woman please come over and talk to Dedi about the Mirabal sisters? She is originally from here but has lived many years in the States, for which she is sorry since her Spanish is not so good. The Mirabal sisters are not known there, for which she is also sorry for it is a crime that they should be forgotten, these unsung heroines of the underground, et cetera.

Oh dear, another one. Now after thirty-four years, the commemorations and interviews and presentations of posthumous honors have almost stopped, so that for months at a time Dedi is able to take up her own life again. But she's long since resigned herself to Novembers. Every year as the 25th rolls around, the television crews drive up. There's the obligatory interview. Then, the big celebration over at the museum, the delegations from as far away as Peru andParaguay, an ordeal really, making that many little party sandwiches and the nephews and nieces not always showing up in time to help. But this is March, !Marma Santmsima! Doesn't she have seven more months of anonymity?

"How about this afternoon? I do have a later commitment," Dedi lies to the voice. She has to. Otherwise, they go on and on, asking the most impertinent questions.

There is a veritable racket of gratitude on the other end, and Dedi has to smile at some of the imported nonsense of this woman's Spanish. "I am so compromised," she is saying, "by the openness of your warm manner."

"So if I'm coming from Santiago, I drive on past Salcedo?" the woman asks.

"Exactamente. And then where you see a great big anacahuita tree, you turn left."

"A ... great ... big ... tree ...," the woman repeats. She is writing all this down! "I turn left. What's the name of the street?"

"It's just the road by the anacahuita tree. We don't name them," Dedi says, driven to doodling to contain her impatience. On the back of an envelope left beside the museum phone, she has sketched an enormous tree, laden with flowers, the branches squirreling over the flap. "You see, most of the campesinos around here can't read, so it wouldn't do us any good to put names on the roads."

The voice laughs, embarrassed. "Of course. You must think I'm so outside of things." Tan afuera de la cosa.

Dedi bites her lip. "Not at all," she lies. "I'll see you this afternoon then."

"About what time?" the voice wants to know.

Oh yes. The gringos need a time. But there isn't a clock time for this kind of just-right moment. "Any time after three or three-thirty, four-ish."

"Dominican time, eh?" The woman laughs.

"!Exactamente!" Finally, the woman is getting the hang of how things are done here. Even after she has laid the receiver in its cradle, Dedi goes on elaborating the root system of her anacahuita tree, shading the branches, and then for the fun of it, opening and closing the flap of the envelope to watch the tree come apart and then back together again.

* * *

In the garden, Dedi is surprised to hear the radio in the outdoor kitchen announce that it is only three o'clock. She has been waiting expectantly since after lunch, tidying up the patch of garden this American woman will be able to see from the galerma. This is certainly one reason why Dedi shies from these interviews. Before she knows it, she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.

Usually, if she works it right-a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in-usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedi lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?

She bends to her special beauty, the butterfly orchid she smuggled back from Hawaii two years ago. For three years in a row Dedi has won a trip, the prize for making the most sales of anyone in her company Her niece Minou has noted more than once the irony of Dedi's "new" profession, actually embarked upon a decade ago, after her divorce. She is the company's top life insurance salesperson. Everyone wants to buy a policy from the woman who just missed being killed along with her three sisters. Can she help it?

The slamming of a car door startles Dedi. When she calms herself she finds she has snipped her prize butterfly orchid. She picks up the fallen blossom and trims the stem, wincing. Perhaps this is the only way to grieve the big things-in snippets, pinches, little sips of sadness.

But really, this woman should shut car doors with less violence. Spare an aging woman's nerves. And I'm not the only one, Dedi thinks. Any Dominican of a certain generation would have jumped at that gunshot sound.

* * *

She walks the woman quickly through the house, Mama's bedroom, mine and Patria's, but mostly mine since Patria married so young, Minerva and Marma Teresa's. The other bedroom she does not say was her father's after he and Mama stopped sleeping together. There are the three pictures of the girls, old favorites that are now emblazoned on the posters every November, making these once intimate snapshots seem too famous to be the sisters she knew.

Dedi has placed a silk orchid in a vase on the little table below them. She still feels guilty about not continuing Mama's tribute of a fresh blossom for the girls every day But the truth is, she doesn't have the time anymore, with a job, the museum, a household to run. You can't be a modern woman and insist on the old sentimentalities. And who was the fresh orchid for, anyway? Dedi looks up at those young faces, and she knows it is herself at that age she misses the most.

The interview woman stops before the portraits, and Dedi waits for her to ask which one was which or how old they were when these were taken, facts Dedi has at the ready, having delivered them so many times. But instead the thin waif of a woman asks, "And where are you?"

Dedi laughs uneasily It's as if the woman has read her mind. "I have this hallway just for the girls," she says. Over the woman's shoulder, she sees she has left the door to her room ajar, her nightgown flung with distressing abandon on her bed. She wishes she had gone through the house and shut the doors to the bedrooms.

"No, I mean, where are you in the sequence, the youngest, the oldest?"

So the woman has not read any of the articles or biographies around. Dedi is relieved. This means that they can spend the time talking about the simple facts that give Dedi the illusion that hers was just an ordinary family, too-birthdays and weddings and new babies, the peaks in that graph of normalcy.

Dedi goes through the sequence.

"So fast in age," the woman notes, using an awkward phrase.

Dedi nods. "The first three of us were born close, but in other ways, you see, we were so different."

"Oh?" the woman asks.

"Yes, so different. Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights." Dedi realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva, as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful, intelligent, high-minded Minerva. "And Maria Teresa, ay, Dios," Dedi sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself. "Still a girl when she died, pobrecita, just turned twenty-five." Dedi moves on to the last picture and rights the frame. "Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important."

"Always?" the woman says, just the slightest challenge in her voice.

"Always," Dedi affirms, used to this fixed, monolithic language around interviewers and mythologizers of her sisters. "Well, almost always."

* * *

She walks the woman out of the house into the galerma where the rocking chairs wait. A kitten lies recklessly under the runners, and she shoos it away "What is it you want to know?" Dedi asks bluntly. And then because the question does seem to ruddy call the woman to account for herself, she adds, "Because there is so much to tell."

The woman laughs as she says, "Tell me all of it."

Dedi looks at her watch as a polite reminder to the woman that the visit is circumscribed. "There are books and articles. I could have Tono at the museum show you the letters and diaries."

"That would be great," the woman says, staring at the orchid Dedi is still holding in her hand. Obviously, she wants more. She looks up, shyly. "I just have to say, it's really so easy to talk to you. I mean, you're so open and cheerful How do you keep such a tragedy from taking you under? I'm not sure I am explaining myself?"

Dedi sighs. Yes, the woman is making perfect sense. She thinks of an article she read at the beauty salon, by a Jewish lady who survived a concentration camp. "There were many many happy years. I remember those. I try anyhow. I tell myself, Dedi, concentrate on the positive! My niece Minou tells me I am doing some transcending meditation, something like that. She took the course in the capital.

"I'll tell myself, Dedi, in your memory it is such and such a day, and I start over, playing the happy moment in my head. This is my movies-I have no television here."

"It works?"

"Of course," Dedi says, almost fiercely. And when it doesn't work, she thinks, I get stuck playing the same bad moment. But why speak of that.

"Tell me about one of those moments," the woman asks, her face naked with curiosity. She looks down quickly as if to hide it.

Dedi hesitates, but her mind is already racing backwards, year by year by year, to the moment she has fixed in her memory as zero.

* * *

She remembers a clear moonlit night before the future began. They are sitting in the cool darkness under the anacahuita tree in the front yard, in the rockers, telling stories, drinking guanabana juice. Good for the nerves, Mama always says.

They're all there, Mama, Papa, Patria-Minerva-Dedi. Bang-bang-bang, their father likes to joke, aiming a finger pistol at each one, as if he were shooting them, not boasting about having sired them. Three girls, each born within a year of the other! And then, nine years later, Marma Teresa, his final desperate attempt at a boy misfiring.

Their father has his slippers on, one foot hooked behind the other. Every once in a while Dedi hears the clink of the rum bottle against the rim of his glass.

Many a night, and this night is no different, a shy voice calls out of the darkness, begging their pardon. Could they spare a calmante for a sick child out of their stock of kindness? Would they have some tobacco for a tired old man who spent the day grating yucca?

Their father gets up, swaying a little with drink and tiredness, and opens up the store. The campesino goes off with his medicine, a couple of cigars, a few mints for the godchildren. Dedi tells her father that she doesn't know how they do as well as they do, the way he gives everything away. But her father just puts his arm around her, and says, "Ay, Dedi, that's why I have you. Every soft foot needs a hard shoe.

"She'll bury us all," her father adds, laughing, "in silk and pearls." Dedi hears again the clink of the rum bottle. "Yes, for sure, our Dedi here is going to be the millionaire in the family."

"And me, Papa, and me?" Marma Teresa pipes up in her little girl's voice, not wanting to be left out of the future.

"You, mi qapita, you'll be our little coquette. You'll make a lot of men's -"

Their mother coughs her correcting-your-manners cough.

"-a lot of men's mouths water? their father concludes.

Marma Teresa groans. At eight years old, in her long braids and checkered blouse, the only future the baby wants is one that will make her own mouth water, sweets and gifts in big boxes that clatter with something fun inside when she shakes them.

"What of me, Papa?" Patria asks more quietly It is difficult to imagine Patria unmarried without a baby on her lap, but Dedi's memory is playing dolls with the past. She has sat them down that clear, cool night before the future begins, Mama and Papa and their four pretty girls, no one added, no one taken away Papa calls on Mama to help him out with his fortune-telling. Especially-though he doesn't say this-if she's going to censor the clairvoyance of his several glasses of rum. "What would you say, Mama, about our Patria?"

"You know, Enrique, that I don't believe in fortunes," Mama says evenly. "Padre Ignacio says fortunes are for those without faith." In her mother's tone, Dedi can already hear the distance that will come between her parents. Looking back, she thinks, Ay, Mama, ease up a little on those commandments. Work out the Christian math of how you give a little and you get it back a hundredfold. But thinking about her own divorce, Dedi admits the math doesn't always work out. If you multiply by zero, you still get zero, and a thousand heartaches.

"I don't believe in fortunes either," Patria says quickly She's as religious as Mama, that one. "But Papa isn't really telling fortunes."

Minerva agrees. "Papa's just confessing what he thinks are our strengths." She stresses the verb confessing as if their father were actually being pious in looking ahead for his daughters. "Isn't that so, Papa?"

"Sm, seqorita," Papa burps, slurring his words. It's almost time to go in.

"Also," Minerva adds, "Padre Ignacio condemns fortunes only if you believe a human being knows what only God can know." That one can't leave well enough alone.

"Some of us know it all," Mama says curtly.

Marma Teresa defends her adored older sister. "It isn't a sin, Mama, it isn't. Berto and Razl have this game from New York. Padre Ignacio played it with us. It's a board with a little glass you move around, and it tells the future!" Everybody laughs, even their mother, for Marma Teresa's voice is bursting with gullible excitement. The baby stops, suddenly, in a pout. Her feelings get hurt so easily On Minerva's urging, she goes on in a little voice. "I asked the talking board what I would be when I grew up, and it said a lawyer."


Excerpted from In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez Copyright ©1995 by Julia Alvarez. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Sandra Cisneros
"I was moved to tears, not of sadness but of joy. The sisters Mirabal continue to live as long as women like Julia Alvarez are brave enough to tell their story...a novel of great carino."
Rudolfo Anaya
"It is destined to take its place on the shelf of great Latin American novels."

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