In the Time of the Butterflies is the fictional story of four real persons, the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. In 1960, three of the sisters, members of the underground movement opposing the regime of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, were ambushed on a lonely mountain road and assassinated. Alvarez’s novel, made up of three sections and an epilogue, intersperses chapters for each sister. All except Dedé’s are first-person narrations; Dedé does narrate the epilogue, however.
Section 1 of the novel (“1928 to 1946”) opens in 1994 with a woman interviewing Dedé about her martyred sisters. The section then describes how youthful Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria awoke to political awareness. Minerva learned of the dictator’s brutality from her schoolmate Sinita, whose family lost all of its men to Trujillo. Minerva educates young María Teresa (Mate). Patria begins to question her faith in God and Trujillo as a young wife plunged into a religious crisis after a stillbirth. Minerva is the first to act on her political convictions. Won over to Sinita’s hatred of Trujillo, she performs in a play covertly celebrating pre-Trujillo freedom. Near its end, Sinita, playing Liberty, suddenly walks up to Trujillo with her toy bow and aims an imaginary arrow at him. She is quickly subdued, and the tense moment passes, but Minerva has come to Trujillo’s notice.
Section 2, “1948 to 1959,” covers the years of the Mirabals’ resistance activity. Minerva meets activist Virgilio (Lío) Morales and continues in his path when he is forced to flee the country. One day, she discovers her father’s mistress and four illegitimate daughters living in poverty. She also finds letters from Lío that her father has kept from her. Shortly thereafter, Trujillo summons her to attend a dance; when he tries to hold her vulgarly close, she slaps him. Her family quickly whisks her away, but she leaves behind her purse, containing Lío’s letters. Her father is soon detained for interrogation, and the experience breaks his health. Over the next months, Mate joins Minerva in the underground; both marry fellow revolutionaries and have daughters. Eventually, Patria’s son Nelson yearns to join too, and Patria is herself converted when she witnesses a massacre of young rebels by Trujillo forces.
Section 3 relates events leading up to the death of the three sisters, now known nationwide as “The Butterflies.” Trujillo attacks the underground, and Minerva, Mate, the three husbands, and Nelson are arrested. Mate and Minerva keep up the spirit of resistance in their crowded cell, and a solidarity grows between the political and nonpolitical prisoners there. Mate is eventually subjected to electric shock torture. Meanwhile, though, the political tide has begun to turn. The Organization of American States comes to investigate prison conditions, and Mate manages to slip their representative a statement by her cellmates. Soon afterward, Trujillo releases the Butterflies. When Minerva tries to track down information on the state of the underground, she learns that they have become national symbols of resistance. In fact, Trujillo claims his biggest problems are the church and the Mirabal sisters. Before long, Minerva’s and Mate’s husbands are moved to a remote prison. On November 25, 1960, the two wives and Patria set out with Rufino, their driver, to visit the men, despite Dedé’s warning that it is dangerous for them to travel together. They make it to the prison safely, but midway home the narrative breaks off abruptly. In the epilogue, Dedé recalls that for weeks afterward, people brought her information about her sisters’ last hours. They were strangled and clubbed, then returned to the Jeep and pushed off the cliffside. Dedé, enmeshed in grief, barely noted events of the next few years: Trujillo’s assassination, the murderers’ trial, the country’s first free elections in thirty-one years, a coup followed by civil war, and finally peace. The Mirabal sisters, meanwhile, become legends, and Dedé the conservator of their memory.
Alvarez’s postscript explains that her father was a member of the same resistance movement as the Mirabals and fled the Dominican Republic shortly before their deaths. Alvarez grew up hearing about the sisters and decided to write their story. When she began researching their lives, however, she uncovered a wealth of legends and anecdotes about them, but few verifiable facts. She thus turned to fiction to discover who they were. She began this project to answer the question, “What gave them that special courage?” She ends by noting that the anniversary of their deaths, November 25, is now, appropriately, the International Day Against Violence Toward Women.