Wednesday, June 3, 2020

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

A Blue Morpho butterfly in her prime.

In 1960 Julia Alvarez was ten-years-old when her family fled the Dominican Republic for the USA. The SIM military police had uncovered her father's involvement in a plot against General Trujillo's authoritarian regime. That same year in the DR, three of the four Mirabal sisters were murdered. Their deaths were made to look like an accident but everyone knew the truth. Those brave young women, code-named the Butterflies (las Mariposas in Spanish), were the beloved symbols of the resistance. Author Julia Alvarez reimagined their story in her gorgeous historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Although the book was first published 26 year ago, this tale of a narcissistic dictator and the brave young women who dared to defy him feels all the more relevant today.

The story itself was compelling, but what made me fall in love with In the Time of the Butterflies were the well developed characters, the gorgeous writing, and the interesting narrative structure. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of the four sisters, following them from their privileged girlhood to a revolutionary adulthood under the tyranny of Trujillo's reign. Each voice was unique. The eldest sister was the most cautious due to her overbearing husband. The second sister was a dedicated revolutionary, who secretly suffered under the burden of heroic expectations. The third sister was motivated by religious passion and family loyalty. The baby sister disclosed too much in her diaries, admitting her infatuation with the revolutionary men more than the cause, making her delightfully human. Every reader could identify with one of the sisters. It felt so real and relatable, this focus on their family life and the villainy of Trujillo, more than on the polemic of the revolution. However, the trajectory of their tragic lives clearly illustrates the horrors of authoritarianism. 


A Blue Morpho butterfly with shut wings is well camouflaged. The spots look like owl eyes to scare predators.

In the "Postscript," Julia Alvarez explains why she decided to reimagine the personal life of the sisters: "As for the sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, they were also finally inaccessible to me. I realized, too, that such deification was dangerous, the same god-making impulse that had created our tyrant. And ironically, by making them myth, we lost the Mirabals once more, dismissing the challenge of their courage as impossible for us, ordinary men and women."

This might be the treacherous mountain range that the Mirabal sister crossed to reach Puerta Plata.

Read In the Time of the Butterflies to find the courage to fight for change and to remember how to feel hope for a brighter future. The Butterflies will remind you to appreciate family and democracy and to take nothing for granted. I read the book to research my own historical novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and I feel all the more inspired. To practice my Spanish I'm also reading Alvarez's children's delightful Tía Lola series, which I'd recommend to 8-12 year-olds in either English or Spanish. Alvarez is a master of her craft and one of my favorite authors.

¡Vivan las Mariposas!

The gorgeous Blue Morpho butterfly near the end of her short life.


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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dominicana by Angie Cruz & a Visit to the Dominican Republic

Playa Sosúa in the Dominican Republic
Inspired by her Dominican mother, Angie Cruz decided to write a realistic novel about immigration and assimilation. Dominicana is a quiet story of savory dishes, simmering passions, and the twisted bonds of family. Although this 2019 novel was written for adults, it would crossover well to teens.

In 1964 fifteen-year-old Ana Canción is wed to Juan Ruiz, a man more than twice her age. Her desperate family is struggling to make a living in the Dominican Republic. Juan and his charismatic brothers are working in New York but still operate a restaurant business back home. The brothers have an eye on the Canción farmland for expansion. Juan also wants a Dominican wife to start a family in New York City. Their homeland is in turmoil, and this union could bring both families more economic security and the salvation of chain migration.

Dutiful Ana pretends to be eighteen to fly to NYC. She arrives to shocking cold and isolation, unable to speak the language or to deal with city life. Her new husband is abusive and demands that she stay home alone, but Ana schemes to start a business and to learn English while Juan is back in the DR. And then there is Cesar, Juan's younger brother, who reminds her how to laugh again....

Dominicana's gorgeous cover caught my eye at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. I'm taking Spanish at Bowdoin College and reading Dominican American authors to research a new book. I started with nonfiction, but you can learn so much more about a culture by listening to its music, tasting its food, and reading its stories. Angie Cruz, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Junot Diaz have taught me slang I won't learn at school and a deeper appreciation of Dominican culture. They are phenomenal writers who create unforgettable characters in tough settings. Cruz's literary style with strong imagery evokes a sensory reaction. You don't just read Dominicana, you experience Ana's struggles as your own and hope for a better future. A deeply personal and realistic story such as this will engender empathy for immigrants and for victims of abuse or prejudice. I'd recommend this book to anyone.


Like Angie Cruz, a true family story inspired me to write historical fiction. During World War II my great grandfather, Arthur Lamport, helped to set up a farming settlement in the Dominican Republic for Jewish refugees. Other nations imposed strict quotas on Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but the Dominicans opened their country to about 850 Jewish settlers. One small nation of only 1.5 million residents saved near three thousand more lives through visas. Most people, even other Jews, have never heard of Sosúa.


Last month I visited the Dominican Republic to practice Spanish and to see what remains of the Jewish settlement in Sosúa. I found a beautiful beach, their old synagogue, and more to share later.

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@Barrie Summy