The book begins by following Dedé Mirabal in the present day (at the time of publication), 1994. Dedé gets a call from a woman who wants to interview her about the Mirabal sisters. The woman explains that she is a Dominican who has been living in the U.S. for a while, where no one has heard of the Mirabals. Dedé is used to interviews like this, especially on November 25th, the anniversary of her sisters’ deaths, but this is March. She grudgingly invites the woman over.
Alvarez uses the “interview woman” as a stand-in for herself and as a way of introducing the story of the Mirabals to U.S. readers. In her “Postscript” Alvarez acknowledges the Dominicans who might be unable to read the book in English, saying that she is teaching North Americans to understand what Dominicans have endured.
Before the woman arrives Dedé goes through her usual ritual of setting up her life like an exhibit of “the sister who survived.” People always end up asking why she is the only one who lived among all four sisters. Dedé now sells life insurance, which her niece Minou finds ironic. Dedé was divorced ten years ago. The interview woman arrives and slams her car door, which makes Dedé jump, as the loud noise reminds her of a gunshot.
We already know the ending of the story – the Mirabal sisters will be killed – but to build tension Alvarez only drops hints of their fate at first. Everything seems peaceful in 1994, but Dedé is still jumpy from the violent past. Dedé is the only Mirabal sister to survive, so it is ironic that she now sells life insurance, as she is a kind of life insurance policy for her sisters, ensuring that their legacy lives on.
Dedé shows the interviewer around the house (Dedé lives in the same house she used to with her sisters and parents) and exhibits the portraits of the girls. The interviewer asks where Dedé is on the wall, which makes Dedé nervous. She lists her sisters’ ages and their most general traits, as she always does around “mythologizers of her sisters” – Minerva was high-minded and moral, María Teresa was young and girlish, and Patria was very religious.
Alvarez first shows us the butterflies from an outsider’s perspective, giving us the information we might learn from cursory research. She will then create complex, individual characters for each sister to show the real women behind the famous martyrs. Alvarez creates personalities for the sisters, but still sticks to the basic historical facts.
Dedé and interviewer talk more, and the woman asks Dedé how she kept her head up during so much tragedy. Dedé says that she tries to “concentrate on the positive,” especially on happy memories. The interviewer asks Dedé to describe one of those memories.
Alvarez now sets up the transitions between the present and the past. Dedé seems less brave than the other sisters for avoiding their martyrdom, but she had to be brave in living with their loss for decades.
The narrative shifts through Dedé’s memory back to sometime around 1943. The sisters and their parents, Mamá and Papá, are all sitting around in the yard and talking. Papá is drinking rum, but everyone else is drinking juice. The three older sisters are all close in age, while María Teresa is nine years younger.
We have seen the peaceful present, and this is now the peaceful past before all the turmoil begins. The Mirabals are a wealthy family, and Papá has become a successful farmer and merchant.
Sometimes campesinos (peasants) come by and ask for something from Papá’s store, and he always opens up the store and gives it to them. Dedé chides him that his generosity will make them poor, and Papá predicts that Dedé will be the millionaire of the family. María Teresa (who is only eight at the time) asks Papá to predict her future, and he says that she will make “men’s mouths water.” Patria then asks for her future, but Mamá stops Papá, saying that their priest, Padre Ignacio, disapproves of fortune telling. Minerva defends Papá while critiquing Christianity.
These half-joking predictions set up the real futures that await the girls. We also see glimpses of each sister's character – Dedé is practical, María Teresa is naïve, Patria is religious, and Minerva is outspoken and rebellious. It is significant that Dedé’s future is the only one really predicted, which foreshadows the other sisters’ later fates.
Minerva has been wanting to go to law school, and María Teresa says that she hopes her future will be in law too. Mamá says “just what we need, skirts in the law!” but Minerva says that that is exactly what the country needs. She says women should have a voice in politics, and then Papá says “you and Trujillo.” Suddenly they all go silent, and feel that the dark woods are full of spies who will twist their words until the whole family ends up killed.
An important part of the novel is Alvarez’s portrayal of the sisters as women in a male-dominated, patriarchal society. The oppression of women is even encouraged by some women themselves, as with Mamá’s comment. The peaceful moment is broken with Trujillo’s name, and the story moves forward into the dark future.
It starts to rain and the family hurries inside. Dedé then realizes that hers is the only future Papá really told – María Teresa’s was just a joke, and Mamá stopped him before he could get to Patria and Minerva. Dedé feels a chill, as if this happy time is over and “the future is now beginning.”
Trujillo is the dictator of the Dominican Republic and the antagonist of the novel. The mention of his name sets off the action of Alvarez’s story, and we already see foreshadowing that Dedé is the only sister with a long future.