Expanding Horizons book review: Before we were free, by Julia Alvarez

Taking a brief break from Africana, part of what I did while my tv was in the closet in Freetown was listen to this excellent audiobook, which was part of my list for the Expanding Horizons reading challenge.  I really enjoyed this book (even though I’m not really the target demographic) and will surely give it as a gift when my nieces reach age 12 or so.  My thoughts:

poignant, compelling, revealing, excellent story of life under a dictatorship

Julia Alvarez tells the story of the end of the Trujillo dictatorship (1960s Dominican Republic). She cleverly tells the story from the perspective of a pre-teen girl (Anita) while weaving in major political players and events. She captures Anita’s loss of innocence as the oppressive political regime begins to impact her life first obliquely and then very directly. From the start, Alvarez engages us with her main character as she simultaneously paints on a much larger canvas. [As an adult male (without a pre-teen daughter), I found some of Anita’s talk about growing into a woman and being in love with the boy next door tiresome, but it all felt right for the character.]

Alvarez doesn’t shy away from the fiasco that took place after Trujillo’s assassination, but she does leave off just before the country’s first post-Trujillo elections (which were a farce, leaving a Trujillo crony in power for some thirty years). After you’ve finished the book, re-read the author’s note at the beginning: Realizing Alvarez’s intimate connection to the fictionalized events in the book is all the more poignant.

Note on content: Besides girlhood crushes, there is a brief, non-graphic mention of various forms of torture (ugly but important) and an allusion to Trujillo’s penchant for young mistresses.

For adult readers, this is a sweet complement to Alvarez’s wonderful earlier book, In the Time of the Butterflies, which tells the story of the Mirabal sisters, three key anti-Trujillo revolutionaries. While that book took us inside the resistance movement, having this book narrated by a child opens a window into how children are affected in times of oppression. For another perspective on the end of the Trujillo regime, read Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent La Fiesta Del Chivo [The Feast of the Goat]; that book is not appropriate for child readers, with graphic portrayals of torture and of violence against a child (apparently accurate to the time and place).

Julia Alvarez reads the unabridged audiobook herself and is perfect for the role (all the more impressive as I’ve heard Alvarez speak in person, and she doesn’t really sound like a twelve-year-old girl).

1 thought on “Expanding Horizons book review: Before we were free, by Julia Alvarez”

  1. Interesting, especially coming from an adult male without a 12 YO daughter. I have a vague memory of hearing about this book… I’ll have to look it up now.

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