Book Review: In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]

Once we have taken care of life’s essentials—food and shelter—life can be a lot of fun. The day-to-day patterns of life can get comfortable, enjoyable, rewarding in all their small pleasures.

Sometimes, however, we must risk losing these comforts.  Sometimes, we are pulled to think not just of ourselves, but of our friends, our neighbors, our whole country. And we must rise up out of our familiar, comfortable lives and fight for a greater good.

This is the premise of In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, the novel selected for THE BIG READ in 2011.  Based upon a real event in the closing days of Dictator Raphael Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic, this fictionalized version traces the growth and development of the Mirabel sisters, four girls of a middle class, yet rural family, who have a good life.

Yet day by day, from their teen years on, friction develops between this good life and their whole country’s life under a brutal dictator: people informing on their neighbors,   people being jailed, young women taken for the whims of “El Jefe” Trujillo, people disappearing—never to be seen again!

Their good life of planting and harvest and cooking and celebrating ends when their father is suddenly arrested—presumably because Minerva, the most rebellious, the most politically active of the sisters, has refused El Jefe’s advances. The need to fight against Trujillo before he destroys the country spreads through everyone they know like a wildfire.

Bruce Roberts is a poet and ongoing contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Roberts may be reached by at

And most everyone they are close to is suspected, jailed, tortured, until finding vestiges of their good life becomes a daily fight as the forces of suspicion and fear and repression spiral closer and closer to the idyllic life they once had.

The reader knows, right from the start, that the sisters come to a horrible end. What is not known though is that by the end, the reader knows these girls and their parents and their boyfriends and husbands, and then their children very well.   They are strong, passionate, conflicted—nice people who little by little are pulled into fighting for what is right. And all this time, they show strong concern for each other and what this struggle is doing to them. They care deeply for each other, and thus the reader cares about them.

So when the horrific ending comes, the impact on the reader is tremendous. The fourth sister–not with them at the end—survives as a passionate, sensitive narrator for their tale, but the reader feels anguish for them all.

This is a powerful book. It forces us to look from our comfortable lives upon the myriad injustices in the world and wonder if we can take the plunge and fight these inequities, maintaining a sane life at the same time. The Mirabel sisters tried, and while their fight was ultimately successful, their sane life suffered to the end.

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez – a compelling, wonderful book, well worth reading!