About The Book
It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas — “The Butterflies.”
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters—Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé—speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression.
“Wonderful … Skillfully weaves fact and fiction, building to a gut-wrenching climax.” —Newsweek
“A fascinating and powerful picture of a family and a nation’s history.” —The Dallas Morning News
“A gorgeous and sensitive novel . . . A compelling story of courage, patriotism and familial devotion.” —People
“Imagination and history in sublime combination . . . Read this book for the novel it is. Read this book for the place it takes you. Read this book and take courage.”—The Denver Post
“A magnificent treasure for all cultures and all time.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Haunting … full of passion and pathos.” —The Nation
“Shimmering … Valuable and necessary.” —The Los Angeles Times
“The real test of art, Leo Tolstoy said, is that it unite people … [Alvarez] succeeds splendidly.” —The Washington Post
Here’s the video from the live event/webcast of Edwidge Danticat in conversation with Julia Alvarez at Books & Books, March 21, 7:00pm.
Reading Group Guide
In the Time of the Butterflies is based on the real lives of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were slain by agents of the Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo. Their story is told in brief sections, each narrated by one of the sisters. Despite their very strong family ties, the sisters are very different individuals. Patria is the eldest, whose interests are absorbed, initially, by religion and children. Dedé, next in age, is reliable, capable, and eager to please. Minerva, the third, is the family firebrand-the theorist and the speaker. Maria Teresa (Mate) is the baby who completes the family; she is nine years younger than her closest sister.
The girls live with their mother and father in the country town of Ojo de Agua, where the family has land and a little store. Exposed to the corruption and injustice of the Trujillo regime, eventually all the sisters—starting with Minerva—involve themselves in revolutionary activities. Their husbands are arrested and imprisoned, but that does not keep the sisters quiet. They are murdered during a return trip from their husbands’ prison. They are venerated in death and become legendary figures.
Questions for Discussion
1. Julia Alvarez has said that one of the things that interested her while she was writing the novel was the question, What politicizes a person? What makes a revolutionary risk everything for a certain cause? Alvarez has also said that one of the things she learned writing this novel was that what politicizes each person is different, and surprisingly, it’s not always a big idealistic cause or idea. What do you think politicizes each of the Mirabal sisters, including, ultimately, Dedé? What would politicize you?
2. The Mirabal sisters are very different individuals. Which of them would you most like to have been friends with? Which one do you most admire? Which one is most like you?
3. What about the men in the book? Some male readers have confessed to feeling that the book is focused too much on female characters. How do different key male figures come across in the book? Do you think Alvarez intentionally weighted the book toward the female point of view, and if so, why?
4. Does the father make you feel sympathetic or judgmental? Do your feelings change as the book progresses?
5. Minerva reacts with shock and anger after learning about her father’s second family but later chooses to take care of her half sisters. Why does Minerva want to help them? Would you have reacted in the same way?
6. In your opinion, is Jaimito a good man or not? Why?
7. Much is made of Dedé’s survival. Why do you think she survived? What is the role she plays in the Mariposas’ history? Do you consider her to be equally heroic despite the fact that she did not join the revolution?
8. The book is built around life and politics in the Dominican Republic during the reign of Rafael Trujillo. Is this a time period you knew about before reading this book? Did you gain a greater understanding of this particular time in Hispanic Caribbean history?
9. What does it mean to write historical fiction? Did it bother you that the sisters Alvarez created might not be exact duplicates of the historical Mirabals? Dedé has said when asked about specific details that some of them Alvarez invented or learned from someone else. But she loved the novel because Alvarez “captured the spirit of the Mirabal sisters.” Does the book encourage you to want to know more about them?
10. The Dominican people, both in the book and in real life, view the Mirabal sisters as heroines and martyrs. Why do you think their legend endures? What makes the story of these particular revolutionaries so captivating?
11. The United Nations has declared November 25, the day of the Mirabals’ murder, International Day Against Violence Against Women, the first day of the international movement “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” which ends on Human Rights Day, December 10 (www.cwgl.rutgers.edu/16days/home.html). Should writers be writing to change the world? What is the role of an author’s politics in a novel? Does politics have any place in fiction?
Julia Alvarez suggests that readers might be interested to know that a virtual tour of the Museo Hermanas Mirabal in the Dominican Republic is available at www.el-bohio.com/mirabal/mirabalC.
Julia Alvarez’s suggestions for further reading:
Vivas en su Jardín, by Dedé Mirabal (Vintage Espanol USA, with an Introduction by Julia Alvarez)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Juno Díaz
The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat
Reading and Discussion Guide provided by EBSCO Publishing’s readers’ resource NoveList—all rights reserved. NoveList is available at most public libraries.
About The Interviewer
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She earned a degree in French Literature from Barnard College, where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award, and later an MFA from Brown University. In 2009 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; The Dew Breaker; Brother, I’m Dying, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography; Eight Days: A Story of Haiti, a children’s book; and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States; The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures; and Haiti Noir. Danticat lives in Miami with her husband and daughter.
We’re thrilled that Sara Gruen, author of the beloved international bestseller Water for Elephants (over 4 million copies in print!), will be interviewed by Kathryn Stockett, author of the equally beloved international bestseller The Help. Tune in to the live webcast on April 26, where you’ll be able to chat with other book club participants viewing from around the world. The Water for Elephants film opens nationwide on April 22: Read (or re-read) the book before seeing the movie!
Praise for Water for Elephants
“For pure story, this colorful, headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can’t be beat. Heroes, villains, romance, a wild-animal stampede! Big fun from page 1.” —Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly, “Top 10 Books”
“A beautiful book.”—John Searles, CBS’s The Early Show
“An enchanting escapist fairy tale.”—The New York Times Book Review
“You won’t want to put [it] down.”—Time
“Vibrant . . . Gritty, sensual, and charged with dark secrets involving love, murder, and a majestic, mute heroine (Rosie the Elephant).”—Parade
“Novelist Gruen unearths a lost world with her rich and surprising portrayal of life in a traveling circus in the ‘30s. An emotional tale that will please history buffs—and others.”—People
“[This] sprightly tale has a ringmaster’s crowd-pleasing pace.”—Entertainment Weekly
“A compulsive page-turner . . . A fascinating setting and a richly anecdotal story that’s enjoyable right up to the final, inevitable revelation.”—The Onion
“A rich surprise, a delightful gem springing from a fascinating footnote to history that absolutely deserved to be mined.”—Denver Post
“I couldn’t bear to be torn away from it for a single minute.”—Chicago Tribune
“You’ll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen’s meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy.”—Washington Post