Before We Were Free
by Julia Alvarez
Knopf, August, 2002.
Hardcover, 176 pages.
Ages 12 and up
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In her Author's Note at the end of Before We Were Free, Julia Alvarez explains that there is a tradition in Latin American countries called testimonio. It is the responsibility, explains Ms. Alvarez, of those who have survived the struggle for freedom to tell the story of those who were not so fortunate. With this in mind, the author tells the story of a twelve year-old girl who lives through the final brutal days of the reign of the vicious dictator named Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic until his assassination, and through the even more brutal reign of Trujillo's son.
Anita de la Torre not only must go through the demands of passing from childhood to adulthood, she must also adjust to a world suddenly filled with dark secrets and imminent danger. Anita's story, as she tells it, begins just before the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Anita attends the American school, along with other Dominican students, and the American presence is always there in one way or another. Her home is a compound consisting of the houses of her large extended family. Grandparents, uncles, and aunts with their assorted children all live in the compound. The puzzling thing to young Anita is why so many people keep disappearing from her life. Some, like her Aunt Laura and cousin Carla leave right in the middle of the school day. Others just disappear.
Slowly Anita begins to unravel the actions of the adult world. She notices how nervous her mother is and ponders the sayings of the family nanny, Chucha. The secret police conduct searches in the compound and always seem to be watching the family. Anita's window, unknown to the family, is right over the place where the men of the family and selected friends discuss plans. Anita begins a diary, but she must erase her entries each day in case the police find it and use what she has written against her family. Her older sister is sent to live with relatives in New York when after her coming out party (quinceanera) she receives flowers from the lecherous Trujillo. Finally, Anita and her mother must hide in the closet of family friends after the arrest of her beloved father. Then, one day, they are able to escape to New York and live with other family members.
Anita's story ends with Thanksgiving at the home of the Garcias in Queens. Anita has been told that her father and favorite uncle were both killed by soldiers in a brutal and senseless way. She dreams of returning someday to her home country, but mostly she realizes that that her freedom was purchased with the sufferings of others. She remembers her father and feels love and pride.
Before We Were Free is a story that will draw the young adult reader into a different world where nothing can be taken for granted. Anita's difficulties in unraveling adult motives, relating to a mother who always seems worried and preoccupied, all while handling the strong emotions dealing with boys her own age will appeal to young readers.
--Sarah Reaves White
Reprinted with permission from The Internet Writing Journal®.
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