Before We Were Free

 
(i)

 

Moving historical fiction about life under a dictatorship.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Will inform readers about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, which lasted just over 30 years. Readers will also struggle with the same issues Anita and her family do: Is murdering anyone ever justified, even when it's a dictator? Should they stay and fight for their freedom, or flee to safety?

Positive messages

There is a strong message about the importance of fighting for your right to be free. As Anita's mother tells her, "Sometimes life without freedom is no life at all."

Positive role models

Anita is a brave and good-hearted lead character. Readers will empathize with her as she gradually understands what is going on around her, and watches her idyllic childhood become increasingly complicated and dangerous.

Violence

Brief but explicit mentions of torture techniques. Anita's father takes part in an assassination plot against the dictator (whose body is found tied up in her car). Anita's father and his friends have guns -- and later she learns of her father's execution.

Sex

Discussions of the onset of Anita's adolescence: menstruation, growing breasts, first crushes, etc. It is implied that Trujillo rapes young girls, and he is interested in Anita's sister.

Language
Not applicable
Consumerism
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Two boys are bullied into drinking and wake up with hangovers.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the author won the Pura Belpre award for this historical fiction book about a young girl from the Dominican Republic whose family is involved in overthrowing the terrifying dictator known as El Jefe in the 1960s. There are some violent details, including some pretty graphic depictions of torture, but there is also a strong message about the importance of fighting for your right to be free. As Anita's mother tells her, "Sometimes life without freedom is no life at all." Through Anita's story, readers will also struggle with the same issues Anita and her family do: Is murdering anyone ever justified, even when it's a dictator? Should they stay and fight for their freedom, or flee to safety? The book includes an author's note and an interview with the author, both of which provide some historical context, as well as a reader's guide.

What's the story?

Anita has a good life living in an extended family compound in the Dominican Republic. But as she approaches adolescence and her relatives start leaving for the United States, or just disappearing, she gradually comes to understand that her family is involved in the resistance to the island's brutal dictator, Trujillo. Soon they are being watched by the secret police and the American ambassador moves into the compound with them to protect them. But when her family takes part in an assassination plot, Anita and her mother are forced into hiding.

Is it any good?

QUALITY
 

Told strictly from Anita's point of view, parts of it in the form of diary entries, this moving book manages to give readers a true sense of what life is like under a dictatorship. Readers will empathize with her as she gradually understands what is going on around her, and watch her idyllic childhood become increasingly dangerous. Not only must she manage the usual markers of adulthood -- periods, crushes, etc.--  but her own complicated coming-of-age story also means coming to terms with her own family's involvement in the assassination of  the man she has always called El Jefe. The story is well told, but its messages about freedom are what will leave a more lasting impression on teen readers. They will struggle with some of the questions Anita struggles with, including what would they do in her family's situation? Is better to flee to safety, or fight for your rights?

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about historical fiction. What's appealing about learning history this way? What does it add to your understanding of real events? What other example can you think of?

  • This book won a Pure Belpre award, which, according to the American Library Association, is given "to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." Why do you think an award like this is necessary? Have you read any of the other award winners?

Book details

Author:Julia Alvarez
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:History, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date:February 15, 2004
Number of pages:167
Publisher's recommended age(s):12

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Quality

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Teen, 14 years old Written bySophie99 January 16, 2011
 
I love this book But at the end it wasn't that intersting!!!
What other families should know
Great role models
Teen, 16 years old Written byhope4me December 3, 2008
 

this is more for girls

she was pretty brave to make decisions on her on like that, most girls would be intrested in this if they have a lack of courage in decision making.
Kid, 12 years old November 8, 2012
 

Great Historical Fiction!

What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking

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