Trujillo Terror Tales

in-the-time-of-the-butterfliesI’ve been reading In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.  Published in 1994, it’s a fictional account of the Mirabal family, which lost three sisters to assassination in 1960. The sisters had been active in protesting the despotic regime of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with strong-arm tactics from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. While driving on a mountain road to visit their imprisoned husbands, the sisters were intercepted, shot, and their deaths made to look like a driving accident. The surviving sister, Dedé, lives on to this day, leading efforts to maintain the memories of her sisters and their cause.

Alvarez’s book alternates between narration by each of the four sisters, creating a distinct portrayal of each. Their struggles with Trujillo begin in a time of growing danger to those who make comments against his regime. His romantic advances toward oldest sister Minerva are spurned, (Trujillo was known for forcing his affections on a steady stream of increasingly younger women; to refuse him was the ruin of their families) but at the cost of her ability to practice law after finishing her degree and the interrogation and rapid decline of her father. Thisbrief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao further radicalized the sisters, leading them and their husbands into revolutionary underground movements, culminating in the tragedy of their assassination. In Alvarez’s capable hands, this is more than a political tragedy, it’s a story of strong women trying to survive in a culture dominated by men. It’s also a lyrical study of longing and loss, a beautiful character study.

Alvarez’s book isn’t the only important work of fiction to touch on Trujillo’s dictatorship. With several excellent books addressing the subject, it would make a fine theme for a book group to take up. Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins in the present day, following overweight Dominican-American teen Oscar, his obsession with science fiction and fantasy, and his pathetic quest for female companionship. Oscar is one-of-a-kind, and his voice is reason enough to read the novel, but the book also explores the life of his serious sister Lola and her feast-of-the-goatsearch for the family’s roots back in the Dominican Republic. Her story leads back to the island, and explores the history of the family curse, the tragic stories of her mother and grandfather, and their battles with the Trujillo regime. Oscar eventually follows his sister back to the Dominican Republic, where he suffers a fate that mirrors that of his mother. 

The newly minted Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa also has a Trujillo novel. The Feast of the Goat follows three distinct story lines surrounding the final years of Trujillo, his assassination, and the aftermath. While much of his story is fictionalized, it’s based in factual incidents, and captures the convergence of power, sexuality, and brutality that was the Trujillo regime persuasively.farming-of-bones

Finally, Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones tells what is perhaps the most despicable Trujillo story of all. In 1937, Trujillo ended the traditional intermixing of Haitians and Dominicans near the border of the island the two nations share. In five bloody days, Trujillo’s soldiers killed between 20,000 and 30,00o Haitians, most of them farm workers, in an act of ethnic cleansing. Danticat follows the life of Amabelle, a Haitian working as a domestic servant in the Dominican Republic when the massacre happens. She survives, but loses her love and cannot escape the terrible memories, continuing through her life to “farm the bones” of the past.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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