It wasn’t until I was in college completing classes for my Spanish degree that I learned about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I was disappointed in my education up to that point, that I had never learned about this tragic time in Dominican history. Since college, I have rarely heard about Trujillo and his regime mentioned.
I have taught one of Julia Alvarez’s short stories in my English classes and my wife has read several of her books and really enjoyed them. So when I came across “Before We Were Free” which is Alvarez’s veiled autobiography of her family’s escape from the Trujillo regime, I was very interested in reading it. While Alvarez’s writing is engaging, I felt that this was more suited for a middle-grade book than even YA. This isn’t to say that older readers won’t enjoy the book, it’s just that they may find it too simple.
The choice of making the protagonist and narrator a young girl, Anita, helps the reader understand some of the frustration, naivete, and sense of doom that follows the family throughout the book. Anita’s family tries to shield her form what’s happening in order to protect her childhood. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t notice the disappearances of family members, the stressed look on her parents faces, of the mysterious visitors who come and go from the house. Through Anita’s point of view, the reader also starts to piece together that something is wrong. Older readers may begin to conclude what’s really happening before younger readers, and I felt this added to my reading. It was like a puzzle to solve.