The truth of In the Time of the Butterflies: fact and fiction intersect in Alvarez novel

by Olivia Paladino
Who would care about the Titanic if it weren’t for the multimillion-dollar movie? Why learn about racial prejudice in the Deep South from a textbook when we can read about it in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
Few knew about the cruel Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo before studying In the Time of the Butterflies, the subject of the schoolwide “Big Read.”’
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Much of what we understand about history today comes from works of literature, movies and television shows.  However, one of the major problems encountered in historical fiction is distinguishing fact from fantasy.
“Learning history from fiction is not beneficial because it could be embellished and not true to the facts,” said junior Caitlin Williams.
In the Time of the Butterflies depicts Rafael Trujillo as a harsh, manipulative man comparable to the World War II dictators studied in U.S. history. The book concerns the Mirabal sisters, the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Trujillo’s regime.
However, in her postscript, author Julia Alvarez states, “What you will find here are the Mirabal’s of my creation, made up, but I hope, true to the spirit of the real Mirabal’s.”
This book describes what life was like under Trujillo, who was controlling, abusive and corrupt. He implemented ridiculous laws such as requiring citizens to hang his photo in their houses with the caption, “In this house, Trujillo is the boss,” and named
every street in the capital after himself. Was Trujillo really as vindictive and vicious as he was described in the book?
“Yes,” said Scotch Plains resident Rafael Romero, 45, who lived in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s regime. “If you didn’t have the picture in your house, and somebody saw, you would be arrested because it would mean that you were not happy with Trujillo, that you were not by his side.”
Throughout the book, the characters often whisper and are extremely careful, even in their own homes, for fear that their plans to rebel against the government would be leaked by spies.
“If Trujillo wanted information, he got it. You couldn’t even trust your own family,” said Romero. “If you said the wrong thing, the police would be at your door the next morning.”
Many of the events and situations described in In the Time of the Butterflies are based on the sisters’ reactions and personalities, which makes the accuracy of their characters all the more important. Their personas—Dedé nervous and cowardly, Patria motherly and caring, Minerva strong and dedicated, and Mate supportive and dependable —are what spark their personal revolutions.  If these are inaccurate, the whole story is.
“This book is endorsed by the surviving sister, Dedé, and other reliable Dominican figures, so we have to trust their judgment that what we are reading is the truth,” said librarian Robin Stayvas. “If they endorse it, then that is enough for me.”
Though In the Time of the Butterflies is a work of historical fiction, it is a more stimulating, involved way of learning real events, and more interesting than any textbook or slide show.
“I really enjoyed reading about the Dominican Republic through this book because it was a fun way to learn about a really dry topic,” said junior Paul Kussner.