Monday, January 18, 2016

A girl's journey through a failed revolution

Julia Alvarez
Julia Alvarez's Before We Were Free is about Anita, a pre-teen growing up in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship.  Julia Alvarez herself escaped the Dominican Republic and came to the US in the 1960s; this book is her imagining of what life must have been like for the cousins she left behind.

I listened to Before We Were Free on audiobook.  At first, I thought it was going to veer a little too young for me.  But as I got deeper into the story, I became much more invested in Anita's life, her family, and how they all tried to live normal lives in the midst of chaos.

The world is in the midst of a refugee crisis.  (In addition to all our other crises.)  It's easy to get caught up in all the numbers and the logistics and the impact such an influx of people from a different culture will have on a host country.  It's easy to forget that every refugee is a person with her own history, hopes and fears.  Alvarez's book does an excellent job of showing the steps that lead to a decision to leave your home and seek out a different life for yourself.

Anita lives in a huge family compound with her extended family.  At the start of the book, she's surrounded by friends and family.  By the end, it's just her and her mother, hiding in a friend's bedroom, desperate for news of their loved ones and hoping for some chance of escaping the country. Through the story, Anita grows thoughtful, more introspective, and more aware of the situation around her, and how her own family is involved.

I wish we had gotten to know Anita's father and uncle better in this story as they were the most involved with the rebellion against Trujillo.  Even her mother seemed fairly involved, but there isn't much light shed on that for readers.  In a way, that makes sense.  Anita is 12 at the start of the book, and she is not central to the planning and execution of plans to topple a government.  We see more hints at Trujillo's reign of terror than overt descriptions.  Anita's beautiful older sister receives flowers from the president, who has an eye for pretty, very young girls, and immediately, her family finds a way for her to leave the country so that she won't disappear.  All girls are told to avoid him, and many of the men in his regime, and you can feel the undercurrent of fear in all conversations about him.

But that's not to say that this book is all about fear.  It's not.  There are many funny moments and a lot of truly heartwarming ones.  Alvarez isn't afraid to talk about big, difficult questions and issues, and the book is better for it.  

8 comments:

  1. Man, I know so so little about Latin American history. It's a whole section of the world that I have hardly any context for. At some point I'm going to have to take a break from my Africa reading project to investigate Latin America a bit as well. I cannot take the ignorance! I barely know Trujillo's name!

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    1. I don't do well with Latin American history, either. I am reading a non-fiction book about the Americas with a good focus on Latin America, but mostly from a Native American point of view. It's hard to tackle the whole world!

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  2. I thought I had read all of Alvarez's books. Somehow I missed this one! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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    1. I think this is Alvarez's only young adult novel, so that could be why you missed it!

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  3. I have only read one of Alvarez's book and loved that one. I did take a mental note to read more of hers but never got to that. I should try this one - it does sound very different from her other book that I read.

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    1. I too have made a mental note to read more of Alvarez's work! Which one of hers did you love? I'll check that one out.

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  4. I've been going through my shelves and finding all of my books written by Latinas and realized that I've only read a handful of them. Alvarez is one of those writers. I loved her book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents - such a fantastic story! I definitely need to read more of her work and this book sounds perfect for me. So glad you posted about it!!

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  5. Sounds interesting, Aarti. I love learning about cultural histories.

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