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Before We Were Free    by Julia Alvarez order for
Before We Were Free
by Julia Alvarez
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 2004 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Julia Alvarez emigrated with her parents from the Dominican Republic to the United States when she was ten years old. In Before We Were Free, twelve-year old Anita de la Torre narrates her family's story, set in the 1960s during the dictatorship of General Rafael Trujillo. As more and more of Anita's relatives leave the country for the safety of the United States, she asks Papi, 'So are we going to go, too, Papi?' He responds with a shake of his head, 'Somebody has to stay and mind the store.' Anita, Mami, Papi, brother Mundin, sister Lucinda, and Nanny Chucha are the only ones left in the family compound.

The policia secreta take up residence outside the compound and one always follows Papi as he leaves for the office. When U.S. Consulate Mr. Washburn and his family move into one of the empty compound houses, the police leave. The American school is closed, then reopened, and closed again. Anita learns that Tio Toni and companions are in hiding for activities against the government. Yet she notices fresh footprints around Tio's property and at times sees light flickering in uncle's casita. Anita also overhears Mami and Papi in strange telephone conversations like 'We're waiting for Mr. Smith's tennis shoes' - she realizes the words are coded messages. Letters from relatives in Nueva York are taped, tattered, and with lines crossed out by censors. Anita compares the election of the U.S. president (limited to two-terms) with that of Trujillo, who has been jefe for thirty-one years.

Rafael Trujillo unexpectedly shows up at Susie Washburn's fifteenth birthday party. Anita notices 'an old man, chest gleaming with medals, face whitened with pancake makeup'. Lucinda comes into jeopardy when Trujillo (whose passion for women is well known) notices her at the party, sending flowers to the compound the next day. Anita is enlightened about her homeland's trials when Mami sends her to a secret meeting place to deliver a message to Papi, 'Mr. Smith's friends are here.' There is reason to celebrate when Tio, Papi, and others arrive with good news, 'Que vivan Las Mariposas!' (Long live the Butterflies, members of the rebellion). Joyous news of the death of General Trujillo is short-lived as policia arrive to make arrests. Anita and Mami rush into hiding in a bedroom closet of the Mancini residence.

Anita kept a diary, writing with pencil in case she needed to erase her thoughts. Now, in hiding, Mami tells her daughter to use a pen so that people will know what happened in their country. As Anita writes in her diary, she remembers what Papi had said to them, 'I want my children to be free, no matter what. Promise me you'll spread your wings and fly.' Anita's Dairy dated June 6, 1961 tells us that 'from the window, I have a bird's-eye view of the grounds of the embassy. But unlike a bird, I can't fly free ... except in my imagination ... El Jefe's son, Trujillo Junior, says he will not rest until he has punished every man, woman, and child associated with the assassination of his father.'

From the pen of a gifted writer comes a poignant story, conveying tension and terror within a family. Julia Alvarez's first novel for young adults is an unforgettable account of the perseverance, and courage of a country struggling to be free. Before We Were Free won the Pura Belpre Award.

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