In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

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What happens in In the Time of the Butterflies?

Dedé Mirabal, the last surviving Mirabal sister, tells the story of how her sisters grew up to be martyrs and national heroes in the Dominican Republic. She recounts how her sisters first came to political awareness during the reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

  • In Part I, Minerva Mirabal portrays the figure of Liberty in a school play, during which she aims an imaginary arrow at Trujillo's heart. Minerva shares her hatred of Trujillo with her sister María Teresa (Mate). Patria Mirabal, meanwhile, begins to question her faith in God after she delivers a stillborn baby.
  • In Part II, the Mirabal sisters become embroiled in the resistance movement attempting to overthrow Trujillo. Mate and Minerva marry fellow revolutionaries. Patria joins the movement after witnessing a massacre carried out by Trujillo's forces.
  • Part III ends abruptly, as three of the sisters travel to a remote prison where two of their husbands have been detained. In the epilogue, their brutal deaths are recounted, and Alvarez makes brief mention of the fact that Trujillo is ousted a few years later. Today, the real-life Mirabal sisters are known as "the Butterflies."

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 2,090 words.)