Sunday, August 20, 2017

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a historical novel set in the Dominican Republic during the time of Rafael Trjillo's dictatorship (1930 to 1961). The focus of Ms Alvarez's novel is the martyred Mirabal sisters.  Three real life sisters (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal) who were part of an underground movement in the Dominican Republic to overthrow Trjillo's regime and bring free elections to their country.  All three sisters were assassinated in 1960 on the way to visiting their imprisoned husbands.  After their deaths the Dominican people had had enough and Trjillo was gone in less than a year.  This history was totally new to me and that's what can be so great about historical novels.  These books introduce us to events, eras and fascinating people we would otherwise never have known about and In the Time of the Butterflies is a beautifully written novel as well.

Julia Alvarez, the author, is a bestselling novelist, poet and essayist.  She was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left for the US in 1960 when she was ten.  Ms Alvarez writes that as a young girl she could not get the Mirabal sisters out of her head.  She wondered what gave these young women such courage when most of the Dominican Republic understandably was afraid to speak out?  How did the sisters differ in terms of their personalties and outlook on life?  What was the deciding factor that caused each of the sisters to rebel?

Each chapter of In The Time of the Butterflies alternates as a different sister tells her story.  The novel begins in 1938 when they were children.  We follow the sisters through childhood, Catholic schools, courtship, marriages, prison and activism.  Also we hear from the fourth sister Dede who stayed home that day and survived.  When a writer is dealing with four characters it can be hard to keep their voices distinct but Alvarez does a masterful job in letting us see how different and unique each sister was.   As Dede says to an interviewer years later:

"Yes so different.  Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights".  Dede realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful intelligent high minded Minerva. "And Maria Teresa, ay, Dios".  Dede sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself.  "Still a girl when she died, probrecita, just turned twenty-five".  Dede moves on to the last picture and rights the frame.  Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important  ...well almost always". 

Julia Alvarez never met the Mirabal sisters and makes it clear in the postscript to the novel that In the Time of The Butterflies is a work of imagination which she hopes is true to the spirit of these brave young women.  She succeeds very well.  I finished the book really moved and if you read this book I know you will be too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside Magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else. His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in solitude, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passible in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.  Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but could not let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into The Wild (published 1997), an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Chris McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated with his story?  Most of us do what's expected in life.  And when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existance doing whatever our heart desires but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we  conform.  Chris McCandless was different.  After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided that he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two year penniless hitchiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska.

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two year odyssey and they are interesting. Many parts of the American west are filled with people who have fallen off the grid so to speak, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics. But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it.  Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years. But Chris would not listen. There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping. Chris in addition to being very bright could be a very judgemental young man.

I heartily recommend Into The Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century, young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Jon Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents and sister.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by what happened to him.  It's probably the main reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligation to others.  Chris might have eventually learned this lesson but we will never know.