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Before We Were Free


Before We Were Free

Anita de la Torre is like most 12-year-old girls. She's inquisitive, talkative, and irritates her older sister daily. A native of the Dominican Republic, she attends an American school and quickly learns that the greatest difference between the two countries is freedom. In BEFORE WE WERE FREE novelist Julia Alvarez introduces young readers to the Torres, a close-knit family that grapples with their political ideals in a country where secret police "disappear people" who disagree with El Jefe. And the Torres disagree.

Employing the lyrical style that adult readers have come to love, Alvarez gives young readers a glimpse into a life where a dictator's picture hangs in every home and beautiful young girls are hidden from his lecherous eyes. The story unfolds slowly and gently introduces readers to some of the harsh realities of life under a dictator. Despite its heady content, BEFORE WE WERE FREE is written in a lighthearted tone with a welcome mixture of romance and family strife that gives its political content a palatable perspective for readers.

Award-winning author Alvarez once again creates a believable and likable character in Anita, a girl whose life on the family compound is interrupted by the sudden departure of cousins moving to America and the mysterious disappearance of a handsome young uncle. Soon the secret police have parked their black cars in her driveway, and Anita hears whispered snippets from her father's late night meetings with the American consul and neighborhood men. But despite increased curiosity, Anita's questions go unanswered as her parents check the house routinely for "bugs," talk about Butterflies being killed in a car accident, and shush her as servants move in and out of rooms. One blessed mainstay in Anita's life is Chucha, her clairvoyant nanny from Haiti, who dresses only in purple and sleeps in a coffin. Recounting dreams where she sees Anita "take flight," Chucha tries to prepare her young charge for a new beginning while Anita's father impresses upon her the importance of freedom. "I want my children to be free, no matter what," he says while tucking Anita into bed. "Promise me you'll spread your wings and fly.

Although the political scenery is drastically different from America, readers of all nationalities will relate easily to Anita's sudden interest in boys and her desire to create and maintain her own identity as her body develops and her world changes. Anita's voice rings clearly through the pages of this 163-page novel that closely resembles elements of the author's own life in the Dominican Republic. BEFORE WE WERE FREE offers readers a chance to slip briefly into a different realm, both politically and personally, as Anita shares secrets from her diary and offers a rare opportunity to walk for a while in her small shoes.

Reviewed by Heather Grimshaw on August 13, 2002

Before We Were Free
by Julia Alvarez