In the Time of the Butterflies Review
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
by Julia Alvarez
Published in 1994
While this novel is fiction, it is based on true historical events and people. I first saw the movie In the Time of the Butterflies starring Salma Hayek with my mother. I am Puerto Rican and Dominican and this was actually the first time I had seen a movie that was about the Dominican Republic. When my mother told me that this was based on true events and that the Mirabel sisters were women who really existed - I was completely stunned. I had never learned about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in school and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know such a crucial piece of history. I had to read the book to learn more about what these incredible women did.
The book opens to Dede in 1994 being approached by a woman who wants to ask “the sister who survived” about the revolutionary Mirabel sisters. She flashes back to 1943 around the dinner table with her parents and 3 sisters, Maria, Patria, and Minerva when it is decided the 3 sisters will attend school while Dede stays home and helps her parents manage their home. It is in school that Minerva meets a friend, Sinata, who shares with her the “secret of Trujillo” which shook Minerva to the core. She had always been taught that Rafael Trujillo was a savior to the Dominican Republic, almost on par with Jesus Christ, as she recalls every house being required to hang his picture in their home. Sinata tells her that he has never been the savior everyone has been lead to believe, as he was responsible for killing 5 of her uncles, her father, and her brother for speaking out against him. At the same time, one of their classmates begins being courted by Trujillo until she gets pregnant and is sent away, which is when Minerva learns about Trujillo’s reputation as womanizer and only further tarnishes her view of him.
During this time, Maria finds out that Minerva has been sneaking out of school in order to attend secret meetings for a revolutionary group against Trujillo. Patria also notices Minerva’s new feelings as Minerva publicly begins displaying her dislike for Trujillo, which has the whole family walking around in fear. Minerva attends one of Trujillo’s parties with the family, where she catches the eyes of Trujillo as he tries dancing with her. She uses this as an opportunity to express her interest in attending university to study law. As he presses against her, she slaps him - something she will come to regret for times to come.
Their father is arrested and isn’t released back to them until weeks later, after Minerva has to come and personally apologize to Trujillo in person. Due to the harsh treatment during his sentence, the father dies shortly after coming home. The family is devastated but Minerva gets approved to go to law school, which she decides she will go in spite of Trujillo’s actions. Maria and Patria also gets involved in the political movement as they marry men who are also participants. Even while starting families, they distribute illegal information of the true horrors of Trujillo.
As they continue their work distributing information, supplying those fighting against Trujillo’s group with guns, and speaking out about his injustice, their lives are in even more danger. Their husbands get caught and they, as well as Minerva and Maria, are arrested. Minerva and Maria are not released until 7 months later, with broken spirits. After months of house arrest, they slowly begin to get involved in the resistance again while they try to get their husbands released. On November 25, 1960, Minerva, Patria, and Maria were assassinated by a group of Trujillo’s henchmen. This was the last straw for the citizens of the Dominican Republic and Trujillo was assassinated in May 1961.
Final Rating: 9/10
I love stories of powerful women who made a difference in history because they are always the unsung heroes, and the Mirabel sisters don’t prove to be any different. Strong, brave, and headstrong are only a few adjectives that can be used to describe these sisters. Even though these women were not on the front lines of battle, or physically fighting against Trujillo’s men, they showed that information and standing up for what you believe in is just as powerful as any weapon. They may have only been women, but they did not let this limit them and their involvement in the political movement because they knew they were just as integral to the operations as any other man.
I didn’t give this book a 10 because there are times when they have excerpts from Maria’s diary and Patria’s life where they just drone on and on about falling in love or other mundane irrelevant things to the story. I see that what the author was trying to do was show that they were everyday women, however I wish they could have focused more on their involvement in the movement. These parts in my opinion don’t add anything extra to the story and makes me just want to rush through them to get to the next part and see what else happens to these sisters. Even with such a strong novel to follow, I think the movie managed to interpret the book as closely as possible. What I enjoy a lot about the movie adaption is that it focuses more on the sisters and their own character development from naive simple women to fierce independent political figures. Salma Hayek completely encompasses the passion behind Minerva and what she believes in.
For those that have no idea that this actually happened in the Dominican Republic, you are not alone because I didn’t either. But I think what’s amazing about this book is that even though it’s fiction, it does it’s best to try to stick to as many facts as possible to deliver a story that feels as real as any other. I think Julia Alvarez does a great job of getting inside the heads of the Mirabel sisters in order to really express what they really may have thought and felt during this time. I also think it’s brings attention to the corruption that happens around the world, especially since in the United States it is so easy to be stuck inside a bubble where we don’t know what is happening outside of the country.
I would definitely recommend this book to others. This is perfect for women who need a reminder of how powerful we can be or to those who are interested in learning more about the Mirabel sisters. These women became a symbol for feminist resistance and in 1999, November 25 became recognized by the UN as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in their honor. While you should definitely read this book, please also recognize this day and take a second to remember and commemorate the Mirabel sisters.