Closer Readings Commentary

Migrate to “In the Time of the Butterflies”

A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart. —Julia Alvarez

A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 9–10 (Appendix B), In the Time of Butterflies is complex coming-of-age novel perfect for a high school English Language Arts course or literature circle selection. With its unique structure of time frames and alternating voices, this novel provides a context for students to examine the struggles of women to secure their human, civil, and economic rights in countries around the world today.

EDSITEment’s new World Literature lesson, Courage In the Time of the Butterflies, conducts students through a careful analysis of multiple characters demonstrations of different types of courage. Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies”—was the name used by the people of the Dominican Republic to describe the Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated by the dictator Rafael Trujillo for trying to lead a democratic revolution. It also offers a close reading of an informational text, a recent speech delivered by a daughter of one of the sisters to help students better understand the historical legacy of these extraordinary women.

The Novel

Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) tells this story in historical fiction through the voices of the four Mirabal sisters. Based on Alvarez’s personal knowledge of the political situation in the Dominican Republic and her family’s own participation in the resistance movement, the novel conveys authenticity. It is also grounded in extensive research. Alvarez interviewed the surviving sister Dedé and other family members to create unforgettable characters and bridge the gap between biography and fiction.

In the Time of the Butterflies concludes with a postscript in which the author asks herself: What gave the Mirabals that special courage? Alvarez notes this is the question that drove her to write the novel. Her stated intention was to immerse her readers “in an epoch of the life of the Dominican Republic that can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination.” As they enter the turbulent world of these courageous sisters, your high school students will let you know how successful Alvarez was in accomplishing that goal.

(The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts has selected In the Time of Butterflies for its “homage to the bravery and sacrifice of the Mirabal family and a literary work of high grace.”)

Applications for the Common Core

Courage In the Time of the Butterflies offers an application for the Reading Literature Anchor standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Activity 1 has students generate an extended definition of “courage” a central theme in this text, followed by Activity 2, where the development of the sisters’ courage is tracked over the course of the text in order for them to acertain how it emerges in the actions of the sisters throughout the novel. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Students unearth the complex motivations of each sister’s character and consider their changing relationships as the story evolves. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

The lesson concludes in Activity 3 with a speech given by Minerva Mirabal’s daughter Minou on the subject of violence against women. It provides a unique first-hand perspective and special insight into their lives and legacy. This informational text broadens students’ scope and reinforces their understanding of the types of courage they have examined in Alvarez’s characters. A close reading of the speech is followed by a discussion on its relevance to contemporary women in the United States and around the world. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

Extending the lesson offers additional activities to commemorate the United Nation’s annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th.