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Before We Were Free

Written by Julia AlvarezAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Julia Alvarez

· Laurel Leaf
· Paperback · Ages 12 and up
· April 13, 2004 · $6.99 · 978-0-440-23784-6 (0-440-23784-X)

Before We Were Free
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Anita de la Torre never questioned her freedom living in the Dominican Republic. But by her twelfth birthday in 1960, most of her relatives have immigrated to the United States, her Tío Toni has disappeared, and the secret police terrorize her family for their suspected opposition of the country’s dictator. While her middle school years should only focus around school, boys, big sisters, and puberty, Anita also struggles with code words, close escapes, and assassination plots. Inspired by her family’s perseverance and immeasurable strength, Anita struggles to overcome her fears and to make a dramatic escape to freedom, leaving all she once knew behind.


1. Throughout the book, Anita watches her mother to judge the situation in the compound. Without any direct source of information, this is the only way she can try to figure out what is going on. Has there ever been a time when you’ve needed to watch someone else’s reaction, or interpret their behavior, to understand a situation?

2. Alvarez writes in the first person, and at points in the form of entries in Anita’s diary. Why do you think she chooses this perspective? How does it affect your reading of the book?

3. Anita’s mother often changes her approach to Anita–sometimes treating her as an adult, sometimes as a child. Why do you think she does that? Is Anita old enough to hear the truth? How much would you tell a small child in a situation like this, and why?

4. During the earlier stages of the story, Anita is sheltered in her family compound and doesn’t seem to realize the severity of the political situation in her country. When she learns the truth, she’s surprised. Do you think children are often oblivious to the larger reality around them? As you’ve aged, how have your perceptions and feelings about your government, society, and the world changed? Do you wish you’d known more–or less–as a young child?

5. Anita is at a stage in life when questioning authority becomes common. In this book, several authority figures–the government, the opposition army, her family–force her to behave in certain ways. What are the different ways in which she deals with these authorities? How does she get around some of the rules? Think about the different authorities in your life–which of them matter the most? Do you have different ways of handling each?

6. Anita befriends an American boy, Sam. At the age of twelve, she feels divided between a more innocent view of the world and her increasingly adult perspective. How does her ever-changing view of life affect her relationship with Sam and with her friend Oscar, who comes from her country? Look back on some earlier romances or problems in your own life–how do they seem to you now? Do you still think about them? If your attitudes have altered, what caused the change?

7. What role does American culture play in this novel? Why do you think Anita and her family recognize American holidays, such as Thanksgiving? How does the Dominican quinceañera compare to the American “Sweet Sixteen” tradition? In what ways have traditions from different places or cultures mixed in your life?

8. Is this the first time you have ever read about the political history of the Dominican Republic? Have you learned much about South America or Central America in school or from the media? Why do you think certain histories and regions get more or less attention in schools and the media? Who makes those decisions, and what problems do they present? What can you do about this?

9. Anita’s family takes great risks and plans serious action in their fight against the dictatorship. What do you think of the actions taken, especially the assassination of the dictator? How do we decide what is ethical or moral under circumstances like these? Think about a political act or an international conflict in your own time. What questions were asked–or should have been asked–before it was undertaken? Have there ever been certain ethical questions or feelings that made you “think twice” about a conflict in your own life?

10. At the end of the novel, Anita has lost some of her family to the violence in her native country. How does she feel about the sacrifice her family has had to make? Do you think she truly understands the impact her family has had on her country’s history? Has your own life or the lives of those you love been affected by violence (think about terrorism, war, crime, domestic violence)?


Forgotten Fire
Adam Bagdasarian
In 1915, Vahan Kenderian is living a life of privilege when his world is shattered by the Turkish-Armenian war. Separated from his family, he struggles to survive, knowing each day could be his last.

Tomorrow, When the War Began
John Marsden
When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip deep in the Australian bush, they find that their country has been invaded and their families taken prisoner. Will they run back into the bush, give themselves up, or stay and try to fight?

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer
Irene Opdyke (as told to Jennifer Armstrong)
Forced to work for the German army, Irene bravely uses her position to help Jews hide, escape, and survive the Holocaust. A true story told by a true modern hero.

Number the Stars
Lois Lowry
When the Jews of Denmark are “relocated” during the Holocaust, Ellen must move in with her best friend, Annemarie, and pretend to be part of the family. The danger grows when Annemarie is asked to go on a mission to save Ellen’s life.


Julia Alvarez was just ten years old when she came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Uprooted from her native country, culture, and language, she began to write stories to help acquaint herself with her new home. Alvarez credits living in the United States, where there were so many books to learn from and the opportunity for women to follow their dreams, with encouraging her to become a writer. After college she began publishing poems, and in 1991 she published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, followed by In the Time of the Butterflies and ¡Yo! Her books for young readers include The Secret Footprints, a picture book, and How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, a middle-grade novel.
Julia Alvarez is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College. She has said, “I believe stories have this power–they enter us, they transport us, they change things inside us so invisibly, so minutely, that sometimes we’re not even aware that we come out of a great book as a different person from the person we were when we began reading it.”

From the Hardcover edition.


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