In November of 1960, three sisters and a wrecked jeep were found at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff in the northern region of the Dominican Republic. Although the official newspaper reported that their deaths were an accident, nobody was fooled. Throughout the Dominican, the people knew these young women as Las Mariposas, the Butterflies, the leaders of the resistance to Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship and the symbols of hope for a country in the grip of fear and oppression.
In November of 2019, the Holland community will come together to read and discuss their stories as Hope College hosts the NEA Big Read for its sixth year in a row featuring Julia Alvarez’s novel “In the Time of the Butterflies.” The Big Read is a month-long reading program made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and it organizes events and discussion groups centered around the year’s chosen novel. Past NEA Big Read books include Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and When the Emperor was Divine by Julia Otsuka. During the month of November, the West Michigan lakeside is vibrant with literary questionings, debates and adventures as the community reads, learns and struggles with the themes and ideas put forth by the chosen book. The month culminates in a keynote address by the author, whom the Big Read hosts in partnership with the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series (JRVWS).
This year’s Big Read kicked off with an event featuring three Hope professors who each drew on their expertise to illuminate the historical and literary context of “In the Time of the Butterflies.” Political science professor Dr. Annie Dandavati situated the story in the tumultuous political history of Latin America and revealed the connections between the Trujillo regime and the larger power struggle of the Cold War that was exacerbating regional tensions across the world. Drawing on fictional as well as factual examples, Dandavati also explained how Trujillo leveraged the people’s religion as a means of controlling them. By portraying himself as not only a leader but as a benefactor, Trujillo created a national narrative in which his power was divinely ordained and his regime was beyond reproach.
Shifting the focus from a political to a literary lens, Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño described the significance of Las Mariposas, the Mirabal sisters, through the concept of “secular saints.” A “secular saint” is a social justice hero whose story stands as an example to others who seek to fight back against injustice. According to Postma-Montaño, the Mirabal sisters in “In the Time of the Butterflies” and the character Anita in Alvarez’s middle-grade novel “Before We Were Free” can unite and inspire a new generation of young people to find the courage to advocate for the oppressed. Postma-Montaño also highlighted how Alvarez reveals the power of remembrance and storytelling as a means of resistance. She quoted from a particularly powerful passage of “Before We Were Free,” in which the young narrator realizes that her journal allows her to record her experience and prevent her story from being erased by Trujillo’s tyranny. This idea that writing holds the power to push back against oppressors is central to Alvarez’s whole purpose in imaginatively rendering the voices of those who lived through the dictatorship.
Dr. Jesus Montaño’s talk also centered on the ability of stories to resist injustice, but he spoke not on the novels of Alvarez but on the book selected for the Little Read, the children’s reading program connected to the Big Read. This year’s Little Read book is “The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!,” a picture book written by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. Despite its cute illustrations of farmyard animals, the book touches on heavy themes: oppression, fear, exclusion, and the way that dictators silence dissent. The Rooster is a universal symbol for revolution, and he beautifully states in the book that he sings for those who cannot sing for themselves, or have forgotten how to. From this story, and many other kid’s books Montaño discussed during his talk, children are enabled to learn the various, subtle ways dictators grasp control of their lives and the ways that the children themselves can fight against this injustice. Wrapped delicately within these simple children’s books is pure love, tragedy and inspiration to the next generation.
All three talks, in addition to being informative, were able to orient this year’s Big and Little Read in a way that is globally relevant and applicable to today’s society. It gives readers the chance to look into the travesties of the past so they can step into the future with broadened minds.
This year’s Big Read event is a very important one, as it is the first time that all three of the books and several of the related events will be offered in Spanish. In Holland, where 24% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, this is a much-awaited step forward. There will be many book discussions, movie screenings, and lectures given throughout the Big Read in various lakeside Michigan towns. For a list of events offered in November, visit https://hope.edu/offices/big-read/attend-events.html. The partnership between the Big Read and the JRVWS will occur on November 12, with a Q&A with Julia Alvarez at 11 a.m. and a live reading at 7 p.m., both in the Concert Hall of the Jack Miller Center for Musical Arts. There will also be a Big Read Focus exhibit in the Kruizenga Art Museum from November 5th to December 20th, which features artists who have used their work to fight against social, economic and political discrimination. This year’s Big Read program has already proven to be incredibly insightful and powerful, and we strongly encourage you to pick up the book and start reading. Copies can be found in the Hope College Bookstore.
Written by Zach Dankert and Claire Buck