October Book Club: In the Time of the Butterflies

This serious and significant historical fiction story is enmeshed with a light and lovely romantic comedy novel feel. It’s a winner for lovers of history, social justice, and stories of undying love and dignity.

Better World Books’ own Catarina Gutierrez recommended the book and has this to share:

“It’s one of my favorite books by my favorite author because the story of sisterly love and devotion to social justice is told so well. I really enjoyed reading from the perspective of each sister and getting a better understanding of their involvement in a historical time during Latin American history. It’s undeniable how strong-willed the sisters were and how much of an inspiration they serve to the Dominican Republic.”

About the Book

Set during the waning days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republica in 1960, this extraordinary novel tells the story the Mirabal sisters, three young wives and mothers who are assassinated after visiting their jailed husbands.

About the Author
In her own words from juliaalvarez.com

I was born in New York City during my parents’ first and failed stay in the United States. When I was three months old, my parents, both native Dominicans, decided to return to their homeland, preferring the dictatorship of Trujillo to the U.S.A. of the early 50s. Once again, my father got involved in the underground and soon my family was in deep trouble. We left hurriedly in 1960, four months before the founders of that underground, the Mirabal sisters, were brutally murdered by the dictatorship (see In the Time of the Butterflies).

When I’m asked what made me into a writer, I point to the watershed experience of coming to this country. Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word — great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books. There, I sunk my new roots. Of course, autobiographies are written afterwards. Talk to my tías in the D.R. and they’ll tell you I was making up stuff way before I ever set foot in the United States of America. (And getting punished for it, too. Lying, they called it back then.) But they’re right. As a kid, I loved stories, hearing them, telling them. Since ours was an oral culture, stories were not written down. It took coming to this country for reading and writing to become allied in my mind with storytelling.

1991 was a big year. I earned tenure at Middlebury College and published my first novel, How The García Girls Lost Their Accents. My gutsy agent, Susan Bergholz, found a small press, Algonquin Books, and a wonderful editor, Shannon Ravenel, willing to give “a new voice” a chance. I was forty-one with twenty-plus years of writing behind me. I often mention this to student writers who are discouraged at nineteen when they don’t have a book contract!

I guess the only other thing I should mention about my life is our project in the Dominican Republic. About eleven years ago, Bill and I started a sustainable farm-literacy center called Alta Gracia. Rather than telling you the whole long story here about why we are growing organic, shade-grown coffee; why we started a school on the farm; why sustainability is so important a concept for us all to be thinking about, I’ll send you to A Cafecito Story, a modern, “green” fable I wrote inspired by our project. The afterword by Bill tells all about our own farm. Visit our website cafealtagracia.com and find out how to order our coffee, Café Alta Gracia, and maybe even visit the farm!

A more recent nonfiction book, Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, also gives autobiographical information on my own coming of age in the United States and on finding my voice as a woman and as an American writer.

Discussion Questions
From The Big Read

  1. The novel begins with a writer, “a gringa dominicana,” visiting Dedé at the childhood home of the Mirabal sisters. Who or what is the primary focus of the first chapter? How does opening the narrative this way give structure to the book?
  2. Discuss the novel as historical fiction. How much license may an author take in recreating past events, especially those so significant to a country’s national identity? What can be gained by presenting the Mirabal sisters as characters in a novel, instead of simply telling the facts of their involvement in the revolution?
  3. Most of the novel takes place from the 1930s to the 1960s in the Dominican Republic. What traits are considered appropriate for women living there at that time? Which women defy these social customs, and why?
  4. Compare and contrast the personalities of the Mirabal sisters. In what ways are they alike? How do they differ?
  5. Despite her anger over her father’s infidelity, Minerva insists on meeting her half-sisters and insists after his death that they get the opportunity to have an education. Why do you think she does so?
  6. What prompts Patria to become involved in the revolution? How does her commitment differ from Minerva’s and María Teresa’s?
  7. Why does Dedé shy away from involvement with the underground? What does her reluctance tell us about her priorities in life? What does Dedé value most?
  8. Each of the sisters has different motivations for her involvement in the underground and tolerates different amounts of risk. Discuss when each sister decides to become politically active. What specific event triggers each woman’s decision?
  9. The real-life Mirabal sisters are viewed as heroines and martyrs in the Dominican Republic. Discuss what makes a person a martyr. Is it necessary for martyrs to act heroically? How do the actions of the Mirabal sisters compare to other famous people who have died for important causes?

November Book Club Pick

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

January 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.

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