In the Time of The Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, is a work of historical fiction based on the true story of the four Mirabal sisters who fought for freedom from the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the mid to late 20th century Dominican Republic. Three of the sisters, Patria, Mariá Teresa, and Minerva, tell their story in first person narration. The fourth sister’s story, Dedé’s, is told by a third person omniscient narrator. 

Part 1 begins in 1994 with Dedé, now an older woman, living in her childhood home. She agrees to an interview request at the family home. 

The interviewer arrives and Dedé explains that Minerva, a year younger than herself, was always concerned with right and wrong. Patria, a year older than Dedé, was the religious one. And Mariá Teresa, nine years younger than Minerva, was twenty-five when she died. Dede recalls a happier moment, the moment she calls “zero.” The family sits under the anacahuita tree while Papá plays fortune teller about his daughters’ futures. The subject of Trujillo comes up, and everyone goes silent. Spies are everywhere.

Minerva begins her story with how she persuades Papá to allow his three eldest daughters to attend the convent school, Inmaculada Concepción. There she meets Sinita and learns about Trujillo’s corruption and brutality. Lina Lovatón, a student at the school, is one of Trujillo’s many girlfriends. Lina becomes pregnant and is sent to Miami to live in exile. 

Minerva and her friends perform a skit in front of Trujillo to celebrate the country’s centennial. The performance goes awry when Sinita, off script, approaches Trujillo to stab him with an arrow. To make it seem as if the performance had been planned that way, Minerva shouts, "¡Viva Trujillo!"  

We learn Mariá Teresa’s story through her diary entries. Minerva has been sneaking out of school to attend secret meetings of those opposed to Trujillo. When Trujillo’s men arrest a member of Minerva’s dissident group, Minerva buries all evidence of her involvement.

Patria is a spiritual soul. She struggles between spiritual and earthly desires. She meets Pedrito Gonzalez, falls in love, marries, and has two children. Pregnant a third time, she suffers a miscarriage, and wonders if God is punishing her for not becoming a nun. While on a retreat with Mamá, she learns that Papá has been unfaithful. 

As Part 2 begins, Dedé tells the interviewer about Virgilio Morales, or Lío, a special friend of Minerva’s and member of the resistance. Before he goes into hiding, Lío gives Dedé a letter for Minerva asking her to join him in exile. Dedé reads Lío’s letter and burns it instead of giving it to Minerva.

Minerva discovers that Papá has a mistress, Carmen, and four children by her. She finds letters from Lío that Papá has hidden. Lío wonders why Minerva hasn’t responded to his request that she join him. Minerva confronts her father about his other family and Lío, and she tells him she owes him no respect. 

The family attends one of Trujillo’s parties, and he suspects that Minerva is conspiring with Virgilio Morales (Lío). He dances obscenely with her, and she slaps him in the face. The family makes a quick exit, and for the infraction of leaving the party before Trujillo, Papá is taken in for questioning, and Minerva is interrogated. It takes weeks for Minerva and Mamá to secure Papá’s release.

Mariá Teresa’s next series of diary entries opens with the funeral of Papá. It distresses her that his other family came to the cemetery, and she decides she hates men. She reports that Minerva has met someone special, Manolo.

Mariá Teresa graduates. Minerva and Manolo have married, have a daughter, Minou, and are part of the national underground that has spread across the country. Minerva’s code name is Mariposa (butterfly). Mariá Teresa joins them as Mariposa (#2). She and Leandro, a member of the resistance, fall in love and are married.

Patria, now married eighteen years, is pregnant with Raul Ernesto. She cares for Minou, Minerva’s daughter, while Minerva travels for the resistance. After surviving a government bombing, Patria (Mariposa #3) and Pedrito join the resistance, and their home becomes the “motherhouse of the movement.”

In Part 3, Dedé’s interview ends and Minou arrives and asks why Dedé didn’t join her sisters in the resistance, and Dedé tells the story: 

One day, Dedé’s sisters arrive, wanting her to bury boxes in the cacao field on the property. Jaimito, Dedé’s husband, says no. A week later, the secret police arrest Leandro, as well as Pedrito, Nelson, and Manolo. A few days later, the secret police arrest Minerva and Mariá Teresa. Rumors spread that Trujillo wants Minerva killed. 

After Minerva and Mariá Teresa are released from prison, Dedé receives notes advising her to tell the butterflies to avoid the roads to Puerto Plata, where the men have been transferred. 

When we rejoin Patria’s story, Pedrito is in prison. Margarita Mirabal, Papá’s daughter by Carmen, visits Patria. She is able to smuggle notes out and supplies into the prison for Mariá Teresa and Minerva. Eventually, Patria, Mamá, and Dedé are given passes to visit the sisters. Nelson, because he is a minor, is released.

Mariá Teresa’s diary describes prison life: their cell, the routine, her friendships, her daydreams about Jacqui, her daughter, and the horrendous torture she endured. 

Minerva explains that she is home, and on house arrest. The sisters make weekly prison visits to see their husbands. Dedé worries about their safety, for news spreads that Trujillo has two problems, “the damn church and the Mirabal sisters.” 

Officials transfer Manolo and Leandro to Puerto Plata, a shorter drive but over a mountain pass. On the sisters’ last trip to the prison, lights are on in one of Trujillo’s abandoned mansions along the pass. Thoughts of ambush cross the sisters’ minds, but they decide to return home that same evening.

In the Epilogue, Dedé’s story switches to first person narration. Her sisters are dead. People who encountered her sisters on that last day help her piece together what happened. Men confess to killing them, and to pushing their Jeep over the cliff. The revolution continues, Trujillo is assassinated, and the new president promises to rebuild the nation. But there is a coup, and Manolo dies fighting yet another revolution. Dedé must tell Minou that her father is dead. 

In 1994, Dedé is the oracle of the Mirabal story. Telling the story helps her understand. Dedé and Jaimito divorce, and Dedé survives breast cancer. Once again the winner of the prize trip at work, she’ll go to Canada this year, to find the man she had met last year in Barcelona. To find love.