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 account of the Mirabel sisters’ story, the author examines especially how living in Dominican society affects women. The novel is divided into three sections, followed by an epilogue and postscript. Each section has four chapters, one from the point of view of each sister. Although other chapters of the book are written in the first person, Dede’s are in the third person, emphasizing her distance from her sisters’story. Through the sisters’ experiences, a reader sees the male chauvinism of Latino culture, magnified by the distorted power of dictatorship, as well as the effect of misogyny in both internal and externalized forms. Minerva’s rebellion, Patria’s development from “good Catholic wife” to revolutionary, and Mate’s conflating of rebellion and romance are clear illustrations of these pressures.
A main focus of Alvarez’s work is language—its use to define and limit social groups, especially immigrants and the lower classes, and its possibilities for a writer, especially a bilingual one. Alvarez’s thoughtful use of language, the product of her childhood experience in an oral culture and her love and practice of poetry, is put to good use in her re-creation of the unique voices of the four sisters. In addition to the discussion of her own connection to the Mirabel sisters in the postscript of the novel, Alvarez’s essay, “Chasing the Butterflies,” included in the autobiographical Something to Declare (1998), discusses her 1986 trip to the Dominican Republic and her first interviews of people who knew the sisters or had witnessed their last day. The novel has been made into a film.