Category Archives: Middle Grade Fiction

Before We Were Free: a testimony

butterflies and cage“It is the responsibility of those who survive the struggle for freedom to give testimony. To tell the story in order to keep alive the memory of those who died.” — Julia Alvarez Julia Alvarez’s writing resonates with those of us who have been through the difficulties of assimilating to American culture, and that awkward in-between experience of fitting in neither here nor there. But in Before We Were Free, she goes a step further to bring to life a different struggle — the one that takes place before assimilation is even an issue… the struggle that causes a family to flee their native land in the first place. She depicts the coming of age of Anita Torres, who must grow up in the midst of a dictatorship, while experiencing the gradual disappearance of her surrounding extended family. Through Anita’s observations and diary entries we learn about cousins who from one second to the next have a plane to catch, an uncle who has been neither seen or heard from for a while, hushed conversations among the adults, a family compound that progressively becomes deserted, a housekeeper’s ominous prophesy that “not everyone can have wings,” as well as Anita’s slow realization that her beautiful country is not as full of the liberties and opportunities she once imagined she possessed.

Although Anita is at first your typical spoiled little girl of privilege, she becomes more complex at the story develops. She uses her diary as a safe haven for her thoughts and her story — very reminiscent of Anne Frank — “It’s like my whole world is coming undone, but when I write my pencil is a needle and thread, and I’m stitching the scraps back together.” The SIM raids, the missing relatives, and Chucha’s haunting riddles, drive Anita into a silent protest: she stops speaking altogether. Thus, her only salvation is to write… the only way to fight oppression and fear is to write in that diary. And though at first she must erase every page as soon as she writes down the events of her day for fear of being discovered, soon Anita realizes that words are power, that her story is important, and that if you allow someone to take away your words and your story, only then are you truly left defenseless. “For days I wasn’t able to write a single word… but then I started thinking, if I stop now, they’ve really won. They’ve taken away everything, even the story of what is happening to us.” Freedom of expression, however small, is an immensely powerful weapon against cruelty and brutality.

Alvarez also raises questions about justice — ajusticiamiento. “It’s so unfair to have to live in a country where you have to do stuff you feel bad about in order to save your life.” Under most circumstances one would call a murder plot an assassination; yet in this case it is not so. It is considered a “bringing to justice” and it makes you wonder about your own ideas of justice, and fairness, and the desperate acts of a desperate people. Most of us don’t spend too much time questioning the freedoms we have — more often than not, we take them for granted. But Anita’s poignant words remind us that it has not always been so everywhere… they remind us that it isn’t so today…

“I wonder what it would be like to be free? … free inside, like an uncaged bird. Then nothing, not even a dictatorship, can take away your liberty.”

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction