image courtesy JuliaAlvarez.com
In general, I enjoy books by Julia Alvarez. She is skilled with imagery and characterization. The biggest problem I have with her is that she sprinkles so much Spanish into her novels that it’s sometimes hard for me to follow. However, Before We Were Free is intended for young adults, so Alvarez uses less Spanish and a lot more context clues to help the reader understand.
The narrator, twelve-year-old Anita de la Torre, lives in the Dominican Republic with her extended family in a large family compound. But little by little, members of family leave for the United States, and Anita comes to realize that the leader she thought was beloved, Trujillo, is actually a cruel dictator, and her family has been subversively working against him.
Alvarez masterfully depicts life in the Dominican Republic in the 1960’s, when events like the ones in this book actually occurred. If you’ve read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent or In the Time of the Butterflies, you will recogize several of the characters and situations, but it is not necessary to have read those books to understand this one. Alvarez’s characterizations are true-to-life, and her insight into a twelve-year-old mind seems accurate. Political concepts (such as an embargo) are explained in a way that young people can understand without seeming to talk down to the reader.
Before We Were Free, winner of the Pura Belpre Award, is an enjoyable and insightful read.