by Julia Alvarez
Many of us would not understand what it feels like to live under a dictator. However, after reading Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, I felt like I had a pretty good idea. Imagine not being able to speak freely in your own home. Imagine the thought of the secret police popping into your home and tearing it apart. Or the thought of being taken away, jailed, or killed at any given moment. This is what life is like living under a dictator.
Julia Alvarez once lived in the Dominican Republic with her family. For over thirty years her country was under the bloody rule of General Truijillo. There were secret police (SIM) that would keep track of people. People were not allowed to gather in public places. No one dared to resist or there was the risk of arrest, torture, and death to the perpetrator and the family. People lived in fear for their lives. There is a tradition in the Latin American countries to give testimony. To tell the story to keep the memory alive for those that died. Julia Alvarez is keeping the tradition by sharing this story, Before We Were Free. It is also the winner of the Pura Belpre Award.
Anita appeared to be a typical eleven year old girl living in the Dominican Republic while attending an American school. All was well until her cousin was withdrawn from school and she fled to America. This caused Anita to be concerned and ask questions. It seemed that all of her relatives were moving to America and Anita couldn’t understand why. Her Uncle, Tio Toni, had mysteriously disappeared and her dad kept getting weird phone calls. One day she came home to the secret police scoping out her house and they parked in the driveway and watched and listened to their every move. Eventually, Anita discovers her parents and relatives are living a double life as members of an underground movement. Anita’s father wanted a better life for his children. “I want my children to be free.” He asked Anita to make a promise to him, “Promise me you’ll spread your wings and fly.”
Anita’s character is well developed. This story is told through her perspective and the tone reflects fear and hope that she and her family endure. As the times become more trying, Anita keeps a diary so that there is a record of their experiences if she doesn’t survive. This story started out slowly developing the plot but once it reached the climax it became a page turner. All of the events and emotions were real and felt by the reader. While this book is about living under a dictator, it is also about a young girl becoming aware of boys and it also deals with family dynamics. This would make the book more appealing to a young reader.
Julia Alvarez’s writing style and experience made me feel like I was right there with Anita as she encountered her joys and sorrows. I didn’t feel like an outsider. It is truly an unforgettable story about a family’s effort to make change in their country and their journey to freedom. The description of her father’s heroism and the family’s pain is incredibly moving.