What would life be like for a teen living under a dictatorship? Afraid to go to school or to talk freely? Knowing that, at the least suspicion, the secret police could invade your house, even search and destroy your private treasures? Or worse, that your father or uncles or brothers could be suddenly taken away to be jailed or tortured or killed? Such experiences have been all too common in the many Latin American dictatorships of the last 50 years. Author Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents) and her family escaped from the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic when she was 10, but in Before We Were Free she imagines, through the stories of her cousins and friends, how it was for those who stayed behind.
Twelve-year-old Anita de la Torre is too involved with her own life to be more than dimly aware of the growing menace all around her, until her last cousins and uncles and aunts have fled to America and a fleet of black Volkswagens comes up the drive, bringing the secret police to the family compound to search their houses. Gradually, through overheard conversations and the explanations of her older sister, Lucinda, she comes to understand that her father and uncles are involved in a plot to kill El Jefe, the dictator, and that they are all in deadly peril. Anita's story is universal in its implications--she even keeps an Anne Frank-like diary when she and her mother must hide in a friend's house--and a tribute to those brave souls who feel, like Anita's father, that "life without freedom is no life at all." (Ages 10 to 14) --Patty Campbell
From Publishers Weekly
In her first YA novel, Alvarez (How the Garc¡a Girls Lost Their Accents) proves as gifted at writing for adolescents as she is for adults. Here she brings her warmth, sensitivity and eye for detail to a volatile setting the Dominican Republic of her childhood, during the 1960-1961 attempt to overthrow Trujillo's dictatorship. The story opens as 12-year-old narrator Anita watches her cousins, the Garc¡a girls, abruptly leave for the U.S. with their parents; Anita's own immediate family are now the only ones occupying the extended family's compound. Alvarez relays the terrors of the Trujillo regime in a muted but unmistakable tone; for a while, Anita's parents protect her (and, by extension, readers), both from the ruler's criminal and even murderous ways and also from knowledge of their involvement in the planned coup d'tat. The perspective remains securely Anita's, and Alvarez's pitch-perfect narration will immerse readers in Anita's world. Her crush on the American boy next door is at first as important as knowing that the maid is almost certainly working for the secret police and spying on them; later, as Anita understands the implications of the adult remarks she overhears, her voice becomes anxious and the tension mounts. When the revolution fails, Anita's father and uncle are immediately arrested, and she and her mother go underground, living in secret in their friends' bedroom closet a sequence the author renders with palpable suspense. Alvarez conveys the hopeful ending with as much passion as suffuses the tragedies that precede it. A stirring work of art. Ages 12-up.
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