'Butterflies': In praise of strong women


"In the Time of the Butterflies" is a glorious, symphonic gift of love. A magnificent treasure for all cultures and all time.

How else to describe a novel that creates a soulful longing so deep it seems it can never be filled, and then fills it, artfully and graciously, with wisdom, the glow of happy memory, and the flower of innocence? How else to describe a novel that celebrates with the Muses the life current that flows among women, connecting them and giving them courage to fight injustice and endure, and hearts to freely love and forgive?

A breathtaking poet, Julia Alvarez tells in "Butterflies" an emotionally kaleidoscopic story about four Catholic women of the Dominican Republic, the sisters Mirabal: in order of birth, Patria, Dede, Minerva, and Maria Teresa. On Nov. 25, 1960, the three revolutionary Mirabals, code-named "butterflies" (in Spanish, "mariposas"), were ambushed and murdered by order of dictator Raphael Leonidas Trujillo on a deserted mountain pass while returning home from a prison visit with their husbands.

The Mariposas actually lived; in death, they became beloved national symbols of the Dominican freedom fight. Her sisters having scoffed at her pleas that they not travel alone that day, Dede survives to bear witness to their lives and to mother their children. The most ordinary and practical sister thus receives the most extraordinary of callings: to prevent the mythologizing of her sisters, to tell their truth as women.

Ms. Alvarez, now an English professor at Vermont's Middlebury College, was just 10 when she fled the Dominican Republic and Trujillo's tyranny with her family in 1960. She arrived in New York City on Aug. 6 and four months later heard about the Mirabals' "accident." Inspired by the sisters' courage, their risk-taking during Trujillo's longtime reign of terror, Ms. Alvarez bases her novel on history, but invests it with so much imagination that the fictional characters, not the legends, take over. Often confused with Latina poet/novelist Sandra Cisneros ("The House on Mango Street"), Ms. Alvarez is deceptively airy, her narration near-magical, whereas Ms. Cisneros is earthy and demanding. Both bridge cultures in their writings about strong women.

Just as in her exquisite first novel, the autobiographical "How the Garcia Girls Got Their Accents," which in alternating viewpoints and time periods tells of four displaced Dominican sisters coming of age, Ms. Alvarez passes unnoticed in her telling of the Mirabal story. Each sister speaks for herself at tender ages, developing both voice and personality, and taking her place within the family. The key to each, of course, is contained within Dede, reflecting in 1994, her life's losses behind her.

Ms. Alvarez's only misstep in this ethereal, yet passionate, memoir is her use of a worn literary device to initiate the reminiscences: the arrival of an outsider who has an appointment with Dede, an interviewer, perhaps Ms. Alvarez herself. Ms. Alvarez employed a similar device in "Garcia Girls" to better effect. Here, the woman gets in the way; once she departs, the butterflies spread their wings:

Patria, 36 when she died, the young bride and Madonna, preserves the family's religious faith in her devout ways and gentle, charitable manner. As a child, she would give away her clothes, her food, her toys. Says Mama, a traditional matriarch, of her eldest: "I was afraid that you wouldn't live long, that you were already the way we were here to become."

Minerva, 34, the lawyer and revolutionary, tries the family's patience, endangering them with her uncompromising resolve, intelligence and sharp tongue. On the way home after a disgraceful first appearance before Trujillo, an 18-year-old Minerva gazes out at "hundreds of blinded moths" illuminated by the car's headlights. "When they hit the windshield," she says, "they left blurry marks, until it seemed like I was looking at the world through a curtain of tears."

Maria Theresa, 25, the romantic and writer, chronicles the family's sweetness, hope and innocence. During the seven months that she and Minerva spend in prison, Mate writes of her fellow prisoners: "There is something deeper [among us.] . . . a current going among us, like an invisible needle stitching us together into the glorious, free nation we are becoming."

It is the inevitable loss of the Mariposas, of course, that makes reading "Butterflies" such a mournful experience. In many Latin American countries, Nov. 25 is observed as the International Day Against Violence Toward Women. And so, in memory, the beautiful cry of "Viva las Mariposas!" continues.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C.


Title: "In the Time of the Butterflies"

Author: Julia Alvarez

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Length, price: 344 pages, $21.95

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