When I first heard that Julia Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, was the book selection for this year’s NEA Big Read Lakeshore, I laughed aloud right where I was standing–in the center of my host university in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. The story takes place less than an hour’s drive away from where I was studying abroad for the semester.
It is a fictionalized account of the upbringing, formation, and eventual assassination of three of the four Mirabal sisters–women who became the figureheads of an underground uprising opposing the thirty-one year dictatorial reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1960. These sisters remain mythic on the island nation even today, whose faces appear on everything from murals to money.
I was thrilled to learn that my own college community of Holland was about to explore the too-often unsung culture of a nation with such close proximity to our own.
In addition to the main book, the program will also be incorporating a shorter novel also by Alvarez titled Before We Were Free and Carmen Deedy’s children’s book, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!
These texts have the potential to challenge and stretch the lakeshore community to adopt a more inclusive worldview at home and abroad by opening conversations around what makes a person good or evil, perceptions of oppression and rebellion, and the importance of remembering the past.
For the first time, all three of this year’s books and a number of events will be offered in Spanish. For the community on the Lakeshore, this is a significant step toward inclusivity. Over 24% of the population of Holland is Hispanic or Latino, making this the largest minority group in the area by nearly 20%. Incorporating Spanish offers so much possibility to draw the regional community together in discussion and camaraderie in a way that transcends the biggest and most immediate language barrier. This expands the size of the conversation, but also multiplies the dimensions and depth as well, adding new perspectives. It provides a literary common ground.
With regard to the content matter itself, the book is true to Dominican social and cultural conventions. The Dominican Republic is a country that fosters a male-dominant mentality–often referred to as machismo. This concept shapes the cultural context in which the story is written and shows itself in the roles that the male and female characters in the story take or reject. Especially because the novel capitalizes on female political heroines who fought in a political arena that they were told they should stay out of, at a time when taking such a vocal and public leadership position was so fiercely discouraged, this text is often taken to be a women’s empowerment piece. It encourages the reader to question gender roles in their own cultural contexts–especially when it comes to loyalty, patriotism, and common human resistance to oppression.
Told within the frame of the memories of the one survivor, the youngest of the four sisters, the story also addresses grief, loss, and the past. She, as a character, is written with a very real case of survivor’s guilt; in light of the trauma of her country and her own family, she is forced to consider what to do moving forward and how best to honor the sacrifices others made to procure the current reality. Alvarez does a beautiful job of humanizing these women whose actions and very existence often seem larger than life. That said, the book also addresses more universal themes such as what makes human goodness and oppression. Above all, it challenges the reader to consider the role of rebellion and what forms are necessary in the light of different cultures as well as their own.
This year’s NEA Big Read and Little Read Lakeshore programs thrill me for all the potential it has to challenge Lakeshore community members to reach outside of their own cultural understandings and connect with others of different life experiences within their own neighborhood.
I highly encourage everyone in the area to take advantage of this opportunity by first reading the book and then having the courage to discuss it within all the nooks and crannies that make up our lives–libraries, coffee shops, cubicles, grocery stores, classrooms, and beyond. Stay posted for the listings of all the events and activities to come!
Rebecca Duran is a senior at Hope College where she is majoring in English and Spanish Education. She is this year’s Big Read student assistant.