Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Dominican Republic: Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez

I could have read the much better known book by Junot Diaz, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". Two things put me off - firstly, that Diaz had moved to the United States when he was six years old, and secondly, I read that the book was set in the United States (among the Dominican immigrant community).

Instead, I looked at the novels of Julia Alvarez, and found one in e-book form in our local library. "Before We Were Free" is actually a young adult book. It is narrated by Anita, who is eleven years old at the start of the story. She lives in a house on the family compound with her parents and elder brother and sister. Close by are her aunts, uncles and cousins, but gradually they have all moved away to the United States. Anita is lonely, and innocent of the wider political realities of life under "El Jefe", whose poster is on every classroom wall and in every home. It is 1960 and El Jefe is the dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

The young adult level of the book meant that I found the first chapter or two a bit simplistic, but gradually as Anita becomes older, she learns more of the political situation, and the problems that her family are facing. The gradual revelations are compelling to read and I found myself gripped by the story, through which I learnt a lot more of the history of the Dominican Republic.

Julia Alvarez has also written an adult novel set at about the same time period: "In the Time of the Butterflies". I'll be looking out for it.

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