First, I would like to say to my followers that the reason I have not been so active on my blog recently is because I have taken a number of projects simultaneously over the past month, including taken more work assignments, started learning Japanese officially, started writing two fiction books (one of which will be a historical fiction/murder mystery set in France), and also started learning the piano. January has been a month of (intense) new beginnings for me (including yoga), and I finally have more time to move forward with my blog posts. Here is my first review of February, and I am continuing with a book by Julia Alvarez for my Latin America Reading Challenge.
Before We Were Free  – ★★★★
Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free is a moving coming-of-age account of a young girl who grows up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship in the late 1950s. Anita de la Torre may be only twelve but she already knows what it is like to have her family members suddenly disappear and a secret police raiding her home. Alvarez’s book strikes a delicate balance between the joys and sorrows of late childhood, including first love and early teenage insecurities, and the external tragedy and the experience of the world falling apart because of random acts of violence. The book is short and easy to read, even though it does lose some of its compelling force in the middle and no longer provides any fresh insights by the end.
One of the great things about Before We Were Free is that it is based on a personal account of the author, who was born in the US, and then was taken to live in the Dominican Republic, before fleeing from there at the age of ten since her father participated in “a failed plot to overthrow a dictator”. In Before We Were Free, the author imagines a girl of twelve years old who finds herself in a similar situation to the author. Anita’s uncle has disappeared, there are strange sightings in an abandoned house next door, and she makes friends with the son of an American Ambassador – Sam Washburn. It is particularly interesting to read her account because, despite the difficulties that her family faces, Anita is still a young girl and lives partly in her childish world, just some steps away from her teenage years. Despite forced disappearances and activities of the secret police in her region, she wants to do well in school and be liked by the boys she likes. In this sense, Alvarez is very good in blending this childhood/early teenage sense of wonder with the horrific reality which is going on outside of Anita’s house. Often we only read rumours of horrific things going on because our point of view is Anita, who is often at her house, but these hints and rumours are enough for us to form the general picture of the ruthless dictatorship and violent persecutions that are ongoing outside of Anita’s safe environment.
The paradox of the book is that, when Anita says less, she actually says more, and we can discern what she is feeling inside through the topics she wants to focus upon. Anita fears that her older sister Lucinda will be taken by the dictator by force, since the dictator already expressed his interest in Lucinda, and Anita also has to be careful not to divulge the secrets of her family to anyone, for example, the fact that her uncle may be in the vicinity: “Papi and Tio Toni are so brave. It makes me want to be like Joan of Arc, a courageous girl who heard heavenly voices. But, unfortunately, unlike Saint Joan, I’ve yet to hear a voice tell me what I can do to help my suffering country”. As the possibility looms in the horizon that the family of Anita may escape to the United States to live free lives, she also realises she has to grow up fast and face up to her responsibilities.
Before We Were Free reads like a YA novel and, in a sense, it is, but inside, it still pack a punch reserved for adult audiences because it deals with very serious issues, as seen through the eyes of a child/teenage girl. And, if the book feels very personal, it is because it is – pretty much so. It becomes easy to sympathise with vulnerability, innocence and the desire for happiness when outside forces just do not let a person to develop and lead the life they want. Children often experience the effects of conflict and trauma much more keenly than adults do, and children are much more sensitive to everything that is going on around them than are adults, who already know in their minds what to disregard and what to forget. Children have to learn by observing others and when they observe fear and distress on their parents’ faces – they live through much more than their parents realise, even if they do also have copying mechanisms than most adults simply do not possess, including retreating into their fantasy worlds. In this sense, Anita’s focus on her boy crushes may also be the response of her trying to concentrate on things other than the grim version of truth presented in the outside world, and not simply the urges of a teenage girl.
But, Before We Were Free is also a book about hope, and about the importance of never losing it. It is through the strength we find in others than we can also find our courage to face a situation. In one interview, the author stated that “Robert Desnos, a French poet who died in a concentration camp, once said that the task of being a human being was “not only to be one’s self, but to become each other”. That is what compassion and freedom are all about”. One should not be complacent, indifferent to the pain of others and only react when some trouble touches one because, otherwise, everyone would be an isolated island thinking only of themselves, without connecting to others emotionally – to people just like themselves who are in need of help.
Reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank , Before We Were Free is a story of hardship and survival through the eyes of a twelve year old girl who is forced to endure what no child should experience – growing up in a family that is constantly under threat of murder or torture. This very personal novel is a true page-turner, but it is probably the importance of its message, rather than the story, that will stay with you.
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