A Tale of Tragedy On a Caribbean Isle

JULIA ALVAREZ'S second novel follows ``How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,'' by three years. Four sisters were the central characters in that exceptional work: a progression of acute, deeply felt tales that moved backward in time from the present in the United States to the past in the Dominican Republic under the regime of Gen. Rafael Trujillo Molina.

Alvarez returns to her native land and the Trujillo dictatorship in ``In the Time of the Butterflies,'' taking an actual historical incident as the pivot around which to develop her story. In it, as in the earlier book, the bonds between four sisters are perceptively explored. Here, however, the political realm is far more vexatious and compromising to the relationships among them.

On Nov. 25, 1960, some four months after Alvarez and her own family had fled the Dominican Republic, three of the four Mirabal sisters were murdered by Trujillo's forces as they traveled to visit their jailed husbands. Creating her own version of their voices, Alvarez shapes the Mirabals' story: not as biography nor as history, but explicitly as fiction.

Of the sisters, Dede, the second-born and survivor, is the practical one. She marries a childhood friend to the satisfaction of both families, though to her own eventual disappointment. Her discontent with her husband is made keener by her regrets over Lio, a young revolutionary who had visited the family shortly before her betrothal. As Dede hung back, Lio formed a bond with her younger sister, Minerva, an idealist impatient of injustice. Ls presence and later flight from the regime have profound consequences for the Mirabals. Eventually, each in her own way and out of separate epiphanies, is drawn into the anti-Trujillo underground.

Minerva is a natural for such causes; a born crusader, she marries a revolutionary. The eldest, Patria, is a pious and good woman: A nun manque married to an honest peasant, she turns from traditional religion to atheism and finally to ``liberation theology'' after her third child is stillborn. The youngest sister, sweet, loving Maria Theresa, wants to be a part of the intimate community a revolutionary cell seems to promise. Consequently, she, too, marries into the cause.

A cruel depiction of the nature of the relationship between Dominican men and women underpins the entire affair. Trujillo is masculine vice incarnate: sensual, cruel, vain, and corrupt. He has a personal ax to grind with the Mirabal sisters. The girls' father, a weak and self-indulgent man, is finally broken by the regime that he only tangles with as a consequence of Minerva's indiscretion and pluck. Even the good men haven't the strength or integrity of the women. The novel's truth and poignancy, however, lie someplace other than in the arrangements between men and women.

Though the novel does have a problematic relation to historical truth, it succeeds magnificently on its own terms. It does not pretend to be a record of events, but a rendition of reality. We know from the outset what fate awaits three of the main characters. We see the women progressing toward the tragedy in their choices, quotidian and otherwise. We cannot help but be saddened by their innocence about the future, as Dede is as she recounts her tale.

Finally, we have the survivor's deflating view of the present day where freedom and prosperity are enjoyed so obliviously, disregarding the sacrifice that bought them. Alvarez's translation of historical events into fiction achieves, in this fine book, the nuance and irony of truth.

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