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Book Review

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Dedé lives alone in her childhood home in the Dominican Republic. Ever since her three sisters were murdered at the hands of a corrupt and dictatorial regime, Dedé has lived in the shadow of their martyrdom. Mythologized by history as the butterflies, the lives of Patria, Minerva and María Teresa are revisited as Dedé remembers their stories.

The Mirabal sisters leave home to receive an education at a Catholic boarding school. But their school years are overshadowed by the actions of Trujillo, also known as El Jefe, the country’s president. His spies are everywhere. One schoolmate has lost multiple family members to Trujillo’s murderous henchmen, while another is taken away to be Trujillo’s latest mistress. Minerva and her friend Sinita narrowly escape repercussions after staging a protest against Trujillo during a recital in the capital.

Minerva is the first of the sisters to join the revolution. Inspired by Sinita, she attends revolutionary meetings and dreams of becoming a lawyer in a free country. She later develops a romantic relationship with a fellow revolutionary named Lío, but when he decides to seek asylum elsewhere, her father and Dedé intercept the letters asking her to join him.

At a party hosted by Trujillo, Minerva slaps Trujillo across the face. This action sets off a chain of events that leads to the imprisonment of her father, who dies shortly after being released. She later attends university in the capital and marries a fellow student, Manolo. The two have a daughter, and despite Manolo cheating on Minerva early in their marriage, the couple joins the revolution and recommits to each other with a renewed sense of purpose.

Patria gives up her dream of entering religious life and leaves school early to marry a farmer named Pedrito. She gives birth to a son and a daughter. When her third child is stillborn, she loses her faith but eventually finds it again in the presence and voices of the people around her. She and her husband are sympathetic to the revolutionary cause but are reluctant to get involved until Patria — pregnant with a fourth child — witnesses the horrors of war while she is on a spiritual retreat. Almost two decades after their marriage, she and Pedrito and their oldest son Nelson become actively involved in the revolution.

The youngest sister, María Teresa, follows in Minerva’s footsteps and attends university in the capital. She marries Leandro, also a revolutionary, and they have two daughters. Together, the three Mirabal sisters and their families risk everything to build bombs and hide ammunition. They hope to overthrow the corrupt government and bring lasting, democratic change to their country.

In the meantime, Dedé, who secretly harbored a crush on Lío, marries her cousin Jaimito and gives birth to three sons. Jaimito forbids Dedé to get involved in the revolution. Feeling torn between her sisters and her husband and sons, Dedé considers leaving Jaimito. But before she can make a final decision, Leandro, Manolo, Pedrito and Nelson are arrested, followed by María Teresa and Minerva. The Mirabals are plunged into an increasingly impoverished state and are spied upon around the clock.

Patria works tirelessly to free her family. Nelson is pardoned and released, but Maria Teresa and Minerva refuse their pardon because it would have meant admitting they had committed a crime. They spend several months in a crowded jail cell, enduring torture and other abuses before being released and put under house arrest. Pedrito, Manolo, and Leandro remain imprisoned and begin to fear for their lives because more and more prisoners are being taken away and quietly killed.

Patria, Minerva and María Teresa visit their husbands regularly. When the men are transferred to a better prison, accessible only by a treacherous mountain pass, the sisters insist on making the trip. On their return journey, they and their driver are brutally murdered by Trujillo’s henchmen. Their bodies are replaced in the car and rolled over a cliff.

Dedé prepares her sisters’ bodies for burial. Together, she and her aging mother raise the children they leave behind. Trujillo is assassinated, but the country is plunged into a series of revolutions before reaching a place of relative stability. Although the men are eventually released from prison, the Mirabal family is never the same. Manolo dies fighting, and Pedrito and Leandro remarry and start new families. Dedé and Jaimito eventually divorce, and Dedé embarks on a second career selling life insurance while keeping her sisters’ memories alive by telling their stories to the journalists, tourists and curiosity-seekers who come to listen.

She meets Lío at a social function more than 30 years after her sisters’ deaths. The Dominican Republic is now a democracy and the revolutions are only a memory, but Dedé still questions if her sisters’ sacrifice was worth it. Eventually, she plans a trip to Canada and finally feels that she can begin moving forward with her life.

Christian Beliefs

The novel takes place against a backdrop of Catholicism, and faith is woven into the fabric of every aspect of their lives. Patria has always been especially drawn to religious life but chooses to marry instead of becoming a nun. After her third child is stillborn, she loses her faith in God but also wonders if He is punishing her. When Pedrito’s farm is set on fire, Dedé helps Patria recite a Christian creed.

In the Mirabals’ home, the required portrait of Trujillo hangs beside a portrait of Jesus. She wonders how a loving, all-powerful God could allow suffering. The Catholic Church decides to side with the revolutionaries, despite being persecuted for their actions. However, some priests remain on the government payroll.

María Teresa wonders about souls and resolves to be chaste. Patria describes experiences as being like Calvary. Minerva refuses to go to church and feels more connected to God reading Rousseau. Patria chides her for losing her faith. A captain is described as both a devil and an angel.

Other Belief Systems

The sisters tell fortunes by selecting a Bible verse at random. The family debates whether telling fortunes is sinful. Fela, the Mirabals’ longtime servant, gives María Teresa charms and teaches her spells. She claims to interpret dreams and read fortunes. After the sisters are murdered, she claims to be possessed by their spirits and builds a shrine where she holds séances. Through her, people petition the sisters for favors. When Fela claims to be unable to contact them anymore, Dedé wonders of the spirits of her sisters are finally at rest. At night, Dedé hears footsteps that she believes are her sisters’ spirits. Sometimes, she feels an evil, supernatural presence.

After her stillbirth, Patria worries that someone has put a spell on her. María Teresa attempts to cast a spell on Trujillo. Patria prays to El Jefe, asking him to take her instead and release her family members from prison. The Mirabals plan how to cast a spell on one of Trujillo’s captains.

Hilda, Minerva’s friend, is agnostic. Minerva and María Teresa nickname a kindly prison guard after Santa Claus, who they describe as an American saint who brings gifts, even to people who don’t believe in Jesus.

Authority Roles

Trujillo, a Dominican dictator, cultivates his god-like image while raping, murdering and imprisoning people in pursuit of power and pleasure. He serially preys upon young girls. In childhood, the sisters believe in his infallibility; by the time they are adults they compare him to the Devil. Minerva wonders if he has nightmares because of the evil things he’s done. Government-issued history textbooks compare Trujillo to Jesus. University students have to pledge loyalty to Trujillo, as well as march and salute Trujillo before enrolling. Maria Teresa wonders if Trujillo’s daughter still thinks her father is God. Trujillo comes to believe that his only two problems are the Catholic Church and the Mirabal sisters.

The sisters’ father cheats on their mother with another woman. The pair have children who secretly live in poverty on his estate. When Minerva discovers his deception, she tells her father that he has lost her respect. While generous to the people around him, he stays silent instead of speaking up against Trujillo. The sisters later identify his attitude as what keeps people like Trujillo in power. He struggles with alcoholism.

Jaimito is physically and verbally abusive toward Dedé and their children, grabbing her wrists and forbidding her to see her sisters. He threatens to leave her if she becomes involved in the revolution.

One of the guards in prison is particularly kind to Maria Teresa. Other guards sexually abuse and torture prisoners. The nuns at the convent school accept bribes to allow Trujillo to take a 16-year-old student as a mistress.

When Patria asks a priest for advice, he tells her that he, too, is lost. The same priest is later arrested for leading a group of Christian revolutionaries and is arrested.

The Catholic Church throws in its lot with the revolutionaries when the bishop gives priests all over the country letters to read from the pulpit decrying the human rights abuses of Trujillo’s regime. The government fights back, first sending prostitutes to make lewd gestures during communion and later fouling the sanctuary with human waste.

Fidel Castro is a hero and inspiration to the revolutionaries. Dedé is silent for many years after her sisters’ deaths. She starts telling her story because she feels people need to have words to understand what they’ve been through collectively as a country.

Profanity/Violence

The name of God is used once as a profanity. D--n and s--- each appear twice, and h--- appears once. The phrase the devil is used once as a profanity. The words queer and b--tard are used as slurs.

Afraid that her husband has moved her stillborn infant from holy ground, Patria pays two men to exhume her baby and open the coffin. The sight of her child’s decomposing body horrifies her. Almost two decades later, she is inside a church that is bombed and witnesses a teenage boy being shot in the back.

The sisters’ car is ambushed on a deserted mountain pass. They and their driver are murdered, and their bodies are placed back in their car and pushed over the cliff. From the marks on their bodies that Dedé notices as she prepares them for their funeral, she believes they were beaten and strangled but not sexually violated.

While in prison, María Teresa realizes that she may be pregnant. She considers inducing an abortion but suffers a miscarriage while being tied down on a table and whipped in front of her husband, Leandro. Leandro, who is skeletal and bruised from previous torture sessions, is punched and kicked by a group of guards in front of her. Some of Manolo’s teeth are broken during his imprisonment. After he is released, Manolo continues to lead the revolutionaries. He is gunned down after surrendering. The prison guards schedule a special torture session to tell the men that their wives have been murdered.

Minerva’s schoolmate Sinita loses a number of male relatives to Trujillo’s murderous henchmen. She witnesses her brother being shot. María Teresa has a recurring dream where she sees various loved ones in a coffin. Lío’s friend commits suicide in jail. A jealous general shoots his wife and her lover. Trujillo is eventually assassinated.

Trujillo has a set of dice made from human teeth that were stolen from a grave. The sisters’ uncle made them. As part of their revolutionary activities, the Mirabal sisters build bombs and hide guns and ammunition.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Trujillo has numerous extramarital affairs and takes young women to be his mistresses. One of these girls is Lina, Minerva’s 16-year-old schoolmate. After Lina becomes pregnant, Trujillo’s wife attacks her at knifepoint.

He is also known for drugging and raping women. He invites Minerva to a party, planning to have sex with her. He fondles a senator’s wife beneath the dinner table before making moves on Minerva. When dancing with Minerva, he grinds his body against her. She slaps him. Government officials suggest that they will be lenient in return for sexual favors, most notably Minerva sleeping with El Jefe, but she continues to refuse.

The girls’ father describes María Teresa as a coquette who makes men’s mouths water. He also says that Patria’s aspiration to religious life would be a waste because she is so pretty. The nuns attempt to teach the girls about menstruation. The sisters pass along information about puberty, sex and childbirth to one another.

Lina takes off her clothing to show Minerva and her friends what they will look like when they get older. Minerva, afraid of what Trujillo did to Lina, binds her breasts. Strange men compliment Minerva on her looks. When deciding whether to pursue religious life, Patria wrestles with sexual desire and explores her body at night, until she receives a crucifix that she clutches instead. She decides not to pursue religious life because of the intense sexual desires that she experiences.

As the novel spans a number of years, the girls experience puberty and learn to navigate a world in which a number of male peers are attracted to them. Patria and Pedrito meet while Patria is washing the feet of the church parishioners. They marry three days before Patria’s 17th birthday. During their courtship, Pedrito kisses Patria’s face, neck and breasts until Patria stops him. They enjoy an active sex life after marriage. After her stillbirth, they experiment with different sexual positions as a temporary relief from grief. Pedrito drinks Patria’s breast milk.

Dedé and Jaimito, and Minerva and Lío make out while on double dates. Dedé and Jaimito push the boundaries physically and play a game where Jaimito gets to touch different parts of Dedé’s body. They provide an alibi for Minerva to continue her relationship with Lío, and that deception emboldens them to go further physically.

However, Dedé refuses to have sex before marriage. When the police ask Jaimito if Lío has ever offered him illicit materials, Jaimito lies in an attempt to help Lío and says he has given him heterosexual porn. (Lío’s political party was branded by the government as the party of communists and homosexuals). After several years of marriage when Dedé and Jaimito have sex, she just waits for it to be over.

María Teresa makes a list of physical features that she likes about the perfect man, including the buttocks. Her two cousins fight over her. Her landlady thinks she is a prostitute and that Leandro is her pimp. Patria’s adult son Nelson is promiscuous. This bothers Patria, but Pedrito is secretly proud of his son’s sexual prowess.

In seminary, Nelson learns a word for oral sex and assumes it is liturgical Latin. Patria’s tears arouse a captain. He has a naked woman on his keychain and makes a crude reference to masturbation. Patria is willing to give out sexual favors in return for release, but doesn’t have to resort to those measures.

Naked male prisoners yell crude things to female prisoners. Guards give prisoners gifts in return for sexual activity and frisk women in the dark, if they need to use the bathroom at night. Women discuss whose breasts are bigger. A female prisoner is stripped in a room full of naked male prisoners. Some of the female prisoners have sexual relationships with each other. One of María Teresa’s friend’s female cellmates tries to kiss her while telling her a story about how she ended up in prison (she was trying to retrieve her stolen baby) and says that her body loves the people her heart loves. María Teresa declines the kiss, but the two remain friends.

Pedrito composes poetry for Minerva and reads it during visitation hours, arousing her. One character tells sexual jokes that she learned in prison. Minou enters into a sexual relationship with her future husband. The sisters’ mother is very protective of her daughters’ and granddaughters’ virginity during their teen years.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

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Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

15 to 18

Author

Julia Alvarez

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing (1994); Plume, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. (1995)

Released

On Video

Year Published

1994

Awards

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, 1994

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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