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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Discussion: In the Time of the Butterflies

On February 10th, I was in Lawrence, KS leading a regional, full day training for library workers. You can see all of the details, slides, and handouts here.

As part of the event, participants were promised, “A book discussion of In the Time of the Butterflies led by Becky.” There was one small problem with this promise-- we had 100 people attend. Below is a picture of the room, taken from the back just before lunch. It doesn’t even capture all of the tables.

But never fear, I am not a book discussion expert in name only. Before the event, Polli Kenn, Director of Readers Services for Lawrence Public Library and I put our heads together and came up with a plan that worked. As you can see here in the full day schedule, we had asked the participants to come to the event ready to share some of their favortie book club title suggestions, especially those that were a bit more "under the radar." We already had a plan for people to be placed at smaller tables for the entire day to encourage this small group conversation. We had also already planned to ask them to have one person be the table's secretary and record these titles so that we could all get a much larger list of crowd-sourced titles to share after the event [by the way, that list can now be viewed, here].

So, since we had smaller group discussions already planned out, I suggested we also start the book discussion at these tables.  Here is what we did:
  • After they finished their title sharing, I directed each table to begin the book discussion, but they needed a note taker who was willing to report back to the entire group.
  • I asked them to take the liked, disliked, or so-so vote with which I begin all of my book discussions first.
  • Then, I wanted each table to have a chance to bring up the things that they were most happy or least happy about in the book. The overwhelming issues and topics that they were most eager to discuss.
  • They had about 10-15 minutes to do this.
  • Next, after a quick break, we would begin the group discussion by having each table have a chance to report.
  • This way I could identify the major issues that this group was most passionate about, I could take the temperature of the room in terms of how they felt about the book, and most importantly, I could whittle down the size of the group from 100 separate people to 12 groups of people. 
  • I had a way to address 12 "people" instead of 100 AND each person in each of those 12 tables had a chance to have their voice and opinion heard.
  • As I went around during the discussion and said things like, "but table 3 seemed to like the character you at table 6 most disliked," the person at table 3 who expressed that opinion earlier, the private conversation, could speak up.
Below, I will give the detailed report on the discussion we had. I am happy to say it went very well, and I gained a whole new skill-- leading a 100 person book discussion in which every single person had a chance to participate. It worked so well, I would be willing to try it again. 

One last thing before I begin with what we discussed, here are the links to the Pre-discussion Handout I created and the NEA Big Read info on In the Time of the Butterflies. We discussed this book because it is currently the "One Book, One Lawrence" discussion title. Julia Alvarez will be visiting them in March too. I also used these questions from the Chicago Public Library to help me prepare.

Ok, let's do this book discussion report---

Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) is a work of historical fiction based on the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, who participated in underground efforts to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo's three-decade-long dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa—were slain on Trujillo's orders on November 25, 1960. Their story haunted Alvarez, whose own family had fled the Dominican Republic just three months earlier in fear that her father's participation in the resistance would make him a target of Trujillo. 
The novel is both an homage to the bravery and sacrifice of the Mirabal family and a literary work of high grace. The first chapter begins in 1994 when a young Dominican-American writer, a gringa dominicana, visits the surviving sister, Dedé Mirabal, at the sisters' childhood home, which has been turned into a museum. Exhausted by the steady stream of pilgrims who have visited her in the thirty-four years since her sisters' deaths, Dedé reluctantly begins to tell the story of a family entwined with the political turmoil of their country. 
In the body of the book, narrated in turn by each of the four sisters, Alvarez brings them to life, skillfully telling the story of four young girls who come of age wanting the same things most young women hope for: love, family, and freedom. Each of the sisters chooses to join the revolution in her own time—even Dedé, the one who lives to tell the tale and admits she only got involved "when it was already too late." 
Scattered through the girls' stories are glimpses of a nation under siege, where the simplest liberties have been stripped away. We learn the details of the Butterflies' martyrdom slowly and, as it emerges from its chrysalis, readers find a story that spreads its wings, pauses to breathe the air of freedom, and gently takes flight.
Discussion time:
  • I will begin with the report from each table. There are 12.
  • Table 1: Vote- mostly so-so with a lot of did not finish [herein dnf]. Comments: There were too many voices. It was hard to follow the story because of all the bouncing around. One person listened to the audiobook and found it easier to follow the 4 different narrators because the audio used different actors for each. I found it hard to follow because I am so unfamiliar with the history and the book did not fill in the details- it was about the characters so we didn't get that backstory.
  • Table 2: Vote- ranged from liked it to so-so. All of the historical info Table 1 wanted was in the back of the book. I would have liked it better if that were moved to the front. I struggled with how much was fact and how much was fiction. I was really interested in how the book illustrates the different ways a person becomes politicized.
  • Table 3: Ditto to Table 2. Mostly liked to so-so. Maybe more liked. We also most liked the Mate portions in diary form.
  • Table 4: So-sos all around. The way the story was told humanized them, but it was so hard to follow. Also we struggled with the history vs fiction issues here.
  • Table 5: Spilt down the middle, 2 liked, 2 disliked, and 3 so-so with a lot of dnf. One lady wanted to share that she was so-so until the ending. The ending transformed the entire book for her. Maybe if the others finished, it would do the same for them.
  • Table 6: Mostly liked with 1 or 2 so-so. There was a choppiness with the characters and time periods fluctuating  but it was so beautifully written. It also started very slow. We knew from the first lines that the girls would become political and die for their cause, but it took a while to get there. I liked the history-political-personal mix of the narrative. I could see a lot of political discussion happening around this book, ones that would be very different today in 2017 than when the book first came out in the 1990s.
  • Table 7: Mostly so-so because all dnf. Since we knew the ending-- they all die but 1-- from the first page, most of us didn't feel compelled to finish. But 1 person did comment that she really liked the writing style.
  • Table 8: Two liked and 6 so-so. Most of them preferred the stories as they were told in the real time timeline-- the one in the past, as the action was unfolding. The framing with Dede's flashback was confusing, especially because she has a story in that past time line too. Again the issue of fact vs fiction. Someone wanted to point out that this book discusses the impact of how "you treat women." Their brutal deaths made the country respond.
  • Table 9: Mostly liked. What they liked: the historical setting, connections to the author's own life, the girls last influence viz-a-vie International Violence Against Women Day and the parallels to today. Also, they wanted to discuss each girl's reason for joining the resistance. Each had a different reason and they were not all "equal."
  • Table 10: The finishers liked it, the so-so votes dnf. I didn't like Dede and she opened the novel. I couldn't get into her so I couldn't get into the book. We were all interested in what drove each woman to "the Revolution."
  • Table 11: Mostly so-so because dnf. I like Dede. Table 10 thought she was weak, I did not. I thought she was very strong. 
  • Table 12: Mostly liked but were concerned on where to start when discussing this with a group. In their small group they couldn't get away from the dictatorship issues and how to discuss it without bringing up current American politics. I told them-- good thing you are last because we are going to do that now.
  • From these reports I noted the most pressing issues and ideas that I was going to pursue with the entire group. Basically, their reports gave me the question list. If ever there was a time for me to take my own advice about going with the flow and letting the group direct the discussion, it was now.  Here is that summary of their initial reactions:
    • Spending time on each "butterfly" because different tables had different favorites and/or least favorites
    • Tackling the fact that we had mostly so-sos and a lot of "did not finish.” Why?
    • The issue of historical fiction and how much needs to be real
    • How Alvarez told to tell this story-- four different voices alternating.
    • That lady at Table 5 who said the ending transformed the entire book for her! I made a note to go back to her when we discussed the ending.
  • Question: Dede came up a few times. People like and dislike her. She frames the novel and she is the one who lives. Let's talk about her
    • People brought up her marriage. Some thought she was being ruled by her husband too much, but others thought she was being true to herself with not joining the revolution.
    • A few people mentioned the premonition of their father who said Dede would bury them all... 
    • People liked to see that she became the mother to all of her nieces and nephews. 
    • But she was so different from the other girls. Not just in the fact that she survived. It was harder for some people to latch on to her narration because of this.
  • Question: Let's give the other butterflies a turn. Minerva seems to have the most comments when we went around. Who wants to talk about her?
    • A hand shot up immediately, "I want to be her." This started a Minerva love-fest
    • She had the right arguments
    • She was bold
    • She stood up for what was right
    • She spoke her mind
    • This carried through to the people she loved. She fell in love with revolutionaries. Her relationships were based on that first and foremost.
    • She stood out from a young age as different and not belonging in the traditional woman's world.
    • She was a revolutionary first, and a person second
    • But all of this put her family at great risk. Her father's death very early on was indirectly caused by Minerva's actions at the banquet with Trujillo. For some people, that was a big flaw and they did not like her as much.
  • Question: Patria's turn
    • She was a mother and sister first and a revolutionary second. Big different from Minerva.
    • I found her to be the most compelling because her transformation to a revolutionary was so unexpected.
    • Minerva was a “badass.” She was always going to join something. But Patria is so earnest, spiritual, and thoughtful. She joined because she had no choice. She witnessed the atrocities of Trujillo while on a religious retreat. After that she was 100% in on the revolution. She was compelled to join. 
    • It showed that you don’t have to be a super-human Minerva type person to be politicized and to make a difference. You just have to be yourself.
    • She was the most relatable- someone said.
  • Question: Mate's turn
    • I loved her diary entries. She was always such a girly-girl. They made for a nice break.
    • She was so young when her part of the story began. That meant we got to see the most growth in her as a person- from child to adult. From baby sister to wife and mother.
    • I also liked the diary as a way to tell the story. It was less choppy because the long stretches of time could be easily explained as she wasn’t writing in it. Made more sense than how the other girls’ stories flowed.
  • Question: Anyone else you want to mention?
    • Lena, Minerva’s school friend at the start who goes on to be a mistress to Trujillo. I started to love her but then her story was dropped completely. When she went away I was done with the book. 
    • Maybe she was a metaphor for the thousands of people Trujillo “disappeared.” They were there one minute and then gone forever.
  • We decided that the four sisters were all so different and had such different reasons for joining the revolution that this might be why many found the novel so choppy. The story is not straightforward and easy because revolutionary are not straightforward or easy. But telling the story this way gives a fuller picture of how complex these issues are without bogging the narrative down with facts. The story was told through the women.
  • Question: This seemed like the perfect time to bring up the concerns about how much was fact and how much was fiction.
    • I started this part of the discussion off by asking for a show of hands as to how many people read historical fiction for fun. And of those, how many were the ones worried about this question? There were very few hands that stayed up.
    • Then I asked of those who don't normally read or enjoy historical fiction, how many of you were consumed with this question? A bunch of hands stayed up. It seemed that most (but not all) of the people who were most bothered by the fact vs fiction debate were also not regular historical fiction readers.
    • One person did chime in-- I read a lot of historical fiction and it did bother me but I think that is because I usually stay away from historical fiction about real life people.
    • That is a big distinction here. This book is all about actual people, people who are famous. This made the fact vs fiction debate stronger for many readers.
    • I loved the connections with Alvarez’s own story. As I read, I was able to not be bothered by everything Alvarez made up about their home life because I imagined that she was putting stories and experiences from her life into the Butterflies’ story. It made the book special for me. It was like she was sharing her own story in telling their story for the world.
    • In genreal, historical fiction sparks something in me when I read and I am driven to look up more on my own. I spent a lot of time looking things up for this book. I enjoy that.
    • I always look as reading as a mirror OR a window. Historical fiction for me is a window. I read it to learn about a world I will never know. This book was a great window.
    • I didn’t care if the details were correct or not but that was because these women have already been mythologized in their country’s history and in world history [as the reason for the date of International Violence Against Women Day]. They aren’t that “real” anymore. Their story has been coopted by others. For good, but still, they are no longer “real.”
    • The reason I liked Dede the most is because she is the only one left-- the only real one.
    • I don’t know anything about the Dominican Republic. With this book being so personal with such a tiny point of view [this one family and only the daughters], I was struggling to get a sense of the larger picture as I read. Yes I could look it up, but I wanted the book to give me more of that larger picture.
  • Question: Why did Alvarez choose to start the novel with the ending-- letting the reader know that all of the sisters but Dede would be killed?
    • It’s an old trick. That’s how Romeo and Juliet started.
    • I think this may be the reason that many people stopped reading. It was taking too long to get to them joining the revolution and eventually dying, and since I knew that was what was going to happen, why keep going?
    • If I didn’t like how the story was told, I could stop because I knew what would happen.
    • But, I went back to the lady who said the ending “transformed” the entire book for her. She said it made it all the more tragic and heartbreaking. Seeing how the girls themselves  were over being revolutionaries, yet they were still an inspiration to the entire country, and they were still killed. That was surprising.
    • Also, staring with the information that they would be killed gives us the same information as a reader from the DR would have had as they began this book. 
    • This information up front means we can’t hope for the best. We need to know this is bad. No romanticizing. 
    • You just start to like one of them and then you remember, oh she is going to be killed.
    • It is like the entire novel is the “frog in the pot” metaphor symbolizing what a dictatorship does. The girls are gently warming up, not knowing they are going to die. Then they have to decide to hop out or stay. That is what it is like for people living with a dictator. The story is slow because that’s how it felt for them-- it all changed so slowly that it took each person living under Trujillo a different amount of time to be pushed to the brink.
    • The whole book is about the choice between making concessions or being a hero.
  • Question: Why is how and when they died significant?
    • At the point when they were murdered, all three Butterflies had stopped actively rebelling. They were tired, under house arrest and didn’t have the desire to fight anymore.
    • Did Trujillo think it was “safe” to kill them then? Get them out of the way.
    • But why? They weren’t a threat anymore. He did have a lot of paranoia.
    • They were a symbol after their imprisonment and their husbands’ continued imprisonment. They were inspiring thousands just because they lived. 
    • They were a symbol of hope. 
    • He was assassinated by his own people soon after. Maybe his murder of the Butterflies was the last straw.
  • Question: What else do people want to talk about? Both things we already talked about AND new things.
    • We discussed men in hispanic culture and the machoism.
      • It was significant that the Butterflies’ dad only had daughters. Even with his mistress, only daughters.
      • It meant there was no rivalry too. These girls could be strong because there were no sons.
    • This novel showcases that there is social value in storytelling. Alvarez has helped many women and revolutionaries by sharing this story from her country.
    • I didn’t fall in love with the girls like other people did. I just didn’t care. I wanted to care more because their story was so tragic. I am not sure why this happened. Although maybe if I saw them from an outside perspective and not only their perspectives, I would have felt more of an attachment to them.
    • This book made me really understand the thousands of people Trujillo “disappeared.” It was awful and for so long.
    • We really need to understand that the “Revolution” never really was successful. They wanted to be communist. As Americans, we also got our hands dirty in their history. They are doing okay now, but it is as our luxury vacation place. Is that what the Butterflies sacrificed for? Who knows. 
Readalikes: I prepared a handout with readalikes, but since I usually post readalikes in the book discussion report, I have added them here at the end too.

If you enjoyed In the Time of the Butterflies you may also like… 
Suggested by Becky: 
Even though the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz pokes fun at how everything Americans know about Trujillo comes from In the Time of the Butterflies, like the best jokes, it is funny because it is based in truth. Reading these two books, written 13 years apart, provides a fuller picture of the horrors of the Trujillo years and their enduring legacy across time and space.  
Alvarez is often compared to Isabel Allende mostly because they are both female, Latina, literary giants, but because Allende almost always employs a heavy dose of magical realism in her writing, while Alvarez’s work, is soberingly realistic, I find that they often do not make for a good match. However, in Ines of My Soul, Allende broke from her normal magical realism style, writing a historically accurate novel about the Spanish conquerors of Chile in the 1500s told from the point of view of Ines Suarez who was a both a witness to and a participant in this struggle. This is an Allende novel I would have no problem handing over to Alvarez fans. 
Those who are looking for a newer, Latina voice should try, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Using a similar, lyrical, compelling and moving voice to Alvarez, Henriquez looks at the lives of immigrants who have come from all over Central and South America and now find themselves living in the same Delaware apartment building. Their histories in their home countries and their current lives in America are presented using a unique style which includes multiple points of view.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic memoir of the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of the author, who was a teenager at the time. The time and place are very different, but the life or death struggle is, sadly, all too similar. 
The Round House by Louise Erdrich may be set on a North Dakota reservation in the 1980s, but in both theme and writing style it shares much with Alvarez’s novel, as is illustrated by this statement from the National Book Foundation about The Round House upon it receiving the 2012 National Book Award:
"In this haunting, powerful novel, Erdrich tells the story of a family and community nearly undone by violence. Using the quiet, reflective voice of a young boy forced into an early adulthood following a brutal assault on his mother, Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offersa portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories."
If you enjoyed In the Time of the Butterflies you may also like… 
Suggested by NoveList*: 
All Souls' Rising by Madison Smartt BellA novel dealing with earlier revolution on the other half of the island, Haiti. Full of racial and colonial issues that are absent from the Alvarez novel, it is similar in being built on a historical basis, and populated with real figures from the past (e.g. Toussaint L'Ouverture). They Forged the Signature of God by Viriato SencionA translation of a Latin American bestseller, it follows Dominican political events closer to the present day, from the perspective of three seminary students.  
Geographies of Home by Loida Maritza PerezA powerful examination of a Dominican family in the United States, it examines the sometimes violent forces that both tear people apart and force them together. 
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Llosa VargasBoth titles explore the horrors of the totalitarian Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, depicting the historical significance of the time and its effects on families and individuals. 
Memories from Cherry Harvest by Amy WachspressDespite different settings, these two engaging literary novels are both about women -- sisters in In the Time of the Butterflies; succeeding generations in Memoirs from Cherry Harvest -- fighting political injustice in the 20th century. 
Perla by Carolina De RobertisThese lyrical coming-of-age stories focus on the experiences of women (in Argentina and the Dominican Republic), whose lives intersect with brutal dictatorships and state-sanctioned murders of political dissidents. Overlap between domestic and political spheres puts a human face on tragedy. 
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverThese lyrically intense novels depict sisters growing up foreign countries with backdrops of political upheaval, with one taking place in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo's reign of terror; and the other about missionaries in the Congo. 
*Suggestions combined from current Title Read-alikes and Discussion Guide from 2000.

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