Julia Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950, but her family returned to the Dominican Republic when she was an infant. In 1960, when she was ten, her father’s involvement in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo was discovered. The family was warned by an American agent and escaped to New York. About four months after the Alvarez family’s escape, the three Mirabel sisters, who were members of the same underground, were murdered. In the postscript to In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez notes that from the time she heard about these murders as a young girl, she “could not get the Mirabels out of my mind.” On trips to the Dominican Republic, she tried to find out as much as she could about the sisters. Finally, she began to write In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel that she says she felt compelled to write, hoping to answer the question that had haunted her for so long: “What gave them that special courage?”
After their deaths, the “butterflies,” as the sisters had been called, became legendary. People prayed to them and came often to the museum that Dede ran. Other books have been written about the sisters, but they are almost hagiographies in their one-dimensional portrayal of stereotypically and unambiguously heroic figures. Alvarez manages to avoid this pitfall by inventing the voices and lives of the sisters as children and adolescents. In doing so, she presents the four sisters, their family, and their husbands as real, fallible human beings. She also demonstrates through them the pressures that living in a police state exerts on ordinary people.
In Alvarez’s fictionalized...
(The entire section is 540 words.)