When the Elephants Dance

When the Elephants Dance

4.7 40
by Tess Uriza Holthe

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“Papa explains the war like this: ‘When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.’ The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens.”

Once in a great while comes a storyteller

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“Papa explains the war like this: ‘When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.’ The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens.”

Once in a great while comes a storyteller who can illuminate worlds large and small, magical and true to life. When the Elephants Dance   introduces us to the incandescent voice of Tess Uriza Holthe, who sets her remarkable first novel in the waning days of World War II, as the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Karangalan family and their neighbors huddle for survival in the cellar of a house a few miles from Manila. Outside the safety of their little refuge the war rages on—fiery bombs torch the beautiful Filipino countryside, Japanese soldiers round up and interrogate innocent people, and from the hills guerillas wage a desperate campaign against the enemy. Inside the cellar, these men, women, and children put their hopes and dreams on hold as they wait out the war, only emerging to look for food, water, and medicine.

Through the eyes of three narrators, thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan, his spirited older sister Isabelle, and Domingo, a passionate guerilla commander, we see how ordinary people must learn to live in the midst of extraordinary uncertainty, how they must find hope for survival where none seems to exist. They find this hope in the dramatic history of the Philippine Islands and the passion and bravery of its people. Crowded together in the cellar, the Karangalans and their friends and neighbors tell magical stories to one another based on Filipino myth and legend to fuel their courage, pass the time, and teach important lessons. The group is held spellbound by these stories, which feature a dazzling array of ghosts, witches, supernatural creatures, and courageous Filipinos who changed the course of history with their actions. These profoundly moving stories transport the listeners from the chaos of the war around them and give them new resolve to fight on.

With When the Elephants Dance Holthe has not only written a gripping narrative of how Alejandro, Isabelle, Domingo and their community fight for survival, but a loving tribute to the magical realism that infuses Filipino culture. The stories shared by her characters are based on the same tales handed down to Holthe from her Filipino father and lola, her grandmother. This stunning debut novel is the first to celebrate in such richness and depth the spirit of the Filipino people and their fascinating story and marks the introduction of a talented new author who will join the ranks of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Manil Suri, and Amy Tan.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A formidable first novel, worthy of a Verdi opera." —The New York Times

"Mesmerizing...truly exciting to read." —The Washington Post

"A powerful tale of the Philippine Islands and a testament to the resilience and courage of the Filipino people." —San Francisco Chronicle"Readers who loved Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Allende's The House of the Spirits will welcome this novel." —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the summer of 2001, Discover fans thrilled to Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides' gripping account of a U.S. mission to rescue American and British POWs behind enemy lines in the Philippines during World War II. Half a year later, Discover returns to the war-ravaged Philippines in the mystical and utterly enthralling novel When the Elephants Dance.

The title of the work comes from a remark recounted by Alejandro, a young Filipino boy and the first of several narrators in this richly imaginative book: "Papa explains the war like this," he says. "When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful." Alejandro explains that the "chickens" are symbolic of the Filipinos, scratching out their means of survival while the hulking American and Japanese armies battle for control over the land, leaving many dead in their wake. As Alejandro and his brother forage for the family's sustenance, "the blue flies cover the bodies like death veils. They land on our faces bringing kisses from the dead. We swat them away quickly."

For all of its grittiness, When the Elephants Dance is also filled with hope and spirit. The characters who populate Alejandro's world -- his caring father, Carlito; his selfish neighbor, Aling Anna; and his family's quiet friend, Mang Ped -- tell each other stories from the past to illustrate the difficult life lessons they have learned. Inspired by the actual experiences of her Filipino father, in this first novelistic effort Tess Uriza Holthe has created a lyrical treasure about a people readers will never forget. (Winter 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
"Papa explains the war like this," narrates 13-year-old Alejandro as he heads through a series of Japanese barricades and check points. " `When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.' The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens." Inspired by her father, who grew up in the Philippines under the Japanese occupation during WWII, first-time novelist Holthe writes about the experience from a variety of civilian perspectives. Set in Manila during the final week of the Japanese-American battle for control of the islands, the novel centers on a small, mismatched group of families and neighbors who huddle in a cellar while Japanese occupiers terrorize and pillage above. Because food and water are scarce, some of the refugees must leave the shelter to forage for sustenance. In simple, strong language, Holthe conveys the terrifying experience of darting bullets and machetes above ground and the equally horrendous experience of waiting for loved ones to return. Grounded in Philippine myth and culture, the novel is filled with beautiful, allegorical stories told by the story's elders, who try to share wisdom and inspire their captive audience in the midst of gruesome violence. Primarily narrated by Alejandro; his older, headstrong sister, Isabelle; and Domingo, a guerrilla commander living a double life one with his family in the cellar, the other with his true love and adopted son in his rebel army this beautiful, harsh war story is no epic. Rather, Holthe presents personal, pointed fragments that clearly demonstrate history's cultural and personal fallout. (Jan.) Forecast: A promotional blitz an eight-city author tour, targeted marketing to Asian organizations, and radio and print advertising campaigns should alert readers who appreciate simple, moving storytelling to this powerful debut. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
"When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful." Using this Filipino saying, the Karangalan family patriarch describes the Philippine Islands at the end of WW II as the Japanese and U.S. forces battle for control of the islands. As they hide with neighbors in the basement of their home, the narrative of the book shifts between the members of the Karangalan family-the young son tortured by the Japanese for information, the teenage daughter who wants to become a doctor, and the father desperate for his family's survival-and their friends as they relate their experience of the present and hear the stories of the past from one another. The role of religion, both the Catholic tradition and the belief in the supernatural that lives alongside it, is shown both as a element of oppression by the original Spanish conquerors and as a stronghold of faith by the individuals who cling to it in a time of crisis. The swirl of stories from past and present effortlessly gives a rich history of the Philippine Islands up to and including the years of WW II and showcases the region's Asian, European and native influences. Due to the graphic violence and scenes of rape, this book will be limited to senior high and adult collections, but should be considered an essential addition to any multicultural fiction collection. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Penguin, 368p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Courtney Lewis
Library Journal
"Papa explains the war like this: `When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.' " This opening line from Holthe's first novel provides a succinct description of the tale that follows. The chickens in this case are a small group of Filipinos living near Manila in the final, bloody days of World War II. After nearly three years of violent Japanese occupation, the Karangalans and several of their neighbors, including the wife of a famous guerrilla commander, are holed up in the basement of their house as U.S. forces advance on Manila. To fuel their courage and sustain their hope, the basement dwellers spend time telling magical tales based on Filipino myth and legend tales that teach important lessons about life, love, and responsibility. Based to some degree on the experience of Holthe's father, this paean to the courage and resilience of the Filipino people is not for the squeamish. But it is an impressive debut, with well-drawn characterizations and a plot that readily captures and holds the reader's interest. Highly recommended for all public and larger academic collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/01.] David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This gripping tale of love, war, indomitable courage, and the struggle for independence will captivate teens and enchant them with Filipino folktales, while providing them a glimpse of another culture. In 1945, as the U.S. fights to regain control of the Philippines from Japan, the Karangalan family huddles with neighbors in the basement of their house outside Manila, hiding from Japanese patrols. Papa says, "When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful." The beasts are the Amerikanos and the Japanese; the Filipinos are the chickens. Isabelle, 17, leaves the cellar to visit a cousin. She is captured by Japanese soldiers and raped, but escapes with the help of a friend. Her brother Alejandro, 13, is stopped and tortured by Japanese soldiers while trying to barter for food, but is released, making his way home empty-handed. Domingo, a guerilla fighter wounded by the Japanese, also makes his way to the cellar, where his wife and son are hiding. The group seeks respite from the horrors of war by telling stories, weaving magical tales of ghosts, family curses, and the spirit world with moral lessons about greed, love, and the importance of family. Finally, the Japanese find their hiding place, and they are imprisoned in a warehouse in Manila. The building catches fire, and in a dramatic climax the Filipinos fight their way out and are rescued by victorious American soldiers.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Romantic and patriotic heroics fill this WWII-set debut: a remarkably rich story about a disparate group of Filipinos thrown together in their struggle to survive the Japanese occupation. In the basement of a battered house outside Manila, a group of neighbors hides from the Japanese. To pass the time, to ward off fear, perhaps even to offer guidance, the inhabitants take turns telling stories. The first two, about a seller of potions and a fisherman with dark powers, have a magical-realist atmosphere. Then comes a series of tales focused on family that emphasizes human relationships and psychological nuance. The final stories deal with broader issues: racism, and political commitment. These oral fictions, often repetitive and verging on the sentimental, weave through a broader narrative of the group's wartime trials as battle rages between American and Japanese forces (the "elephants" of the title). Thirteen-year-old Alejandro, sent out to scavenge for food, stays courageously silent when the Japanese briefly detain him. He thinks he sees the local hero and freedom fighter Domingo taken away to be shot. Actually, thanks to Alejandro's sister Isabelle, Domingo escapes and reconnoiters with his lover Nina and his band of freedom fighters. Meanwhile, Isabelle is imprisoned by the Japanese and raped before Feliciano, previously a Japanese sympathizer, saves her. They all end up back in Alejandro's parents' basement, along with Domingo's wife and children, Feliciano's rich aunt, a brave young journalist, a seer, an elderly Spanish artist, and his cowardly son, among others. The Japanese eventually discover the group, which is force-marched to a warehouse prison. Domingo's conflict betweenallegiance to his family and his political/military obligations gradually takes center stage, but each supporting character's ethical battle resonates brightly, however briefly, and the author keeps the moral choices each faces too complex to second-guess. A well-orchestrated chorus of voices that should strike a strong chord with many.

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

January 1945

Papa explains the war like this: "When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful." The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens. I think of baby chicks I can hold in the palm of my hand, flapping wings that are not yet grown, and I am frightened.

Papa is sick. His malaria has returned double strong, and his face is the color of dishwater. He sweats in his sleep but shakes beneath the woven blankets. When he talks there is phlegm and a quaking in his voice that is hard to listen to. As eldest son, I have been given the duty of food trader for the day. I go in search of rice, beans, camotes, papaya, pineapple, canned tomatoes, Carnation milk, quinine for the malaria, anything I can find. Even the foul-smelling durian fruit with its spiked shell would be a blessing. Pork would be a miracle. We are all very thin like skeletons.

Since the Japanese chased the Amerikanos away three years ago, a kilo of rice now costs fifty centavos, more than four times the original price. The Japanese have created new money, but it is no good. We call it Mickey Mouse money. We trade for everything these days, work, food, medicine.

I carry my basket of cigarettes to barter with. I worked twelve evenings in Manila to earn these, serving coffee and whiskey to the families on Dewey Boulevard who have been allowed to remain in their mansions and villas. These families were the ones who stood in the streets and waved white flags for the Japanese Imperial Army when they first arrived. I would walk twenty kilometers south each day from our hometown of Santa Maria in Bulacan province to work these houses in Manila. I kept watch as the men smoked and played mah-jongg on the stone-and-marble verandas. Their tables faced Manila Bay, her violet sunsets, and the streets lined with coconut palms.

At the end of each evening, I would go to see the hostess, Dona Alfonsa, her face white like a geisha's from too much talcum. She sat in her spacious parlor beneath a row of matching ceiling fans. The blades were made of straw and shaped like spades. Each night she lifted opal-ringed fingers and counted three packs of Lucky Strikes. One for every four hours that I worked. She paid me in cigarettes, and I made certain the cups were always full.

My brother, Roderick, accompanies me in my search for food. He is two years younger, and today is his tenth birthday. We must be careful not to step on the dead, and the Japanese soldiers must be avoided at all costs. The first is Mama's request, the second, Papa's order.

"Pay attention." I grab Roderick by his shirt and point to a man lying facedown.

He frowns. "It is impossible. They are everywhere."

The stench is terrible in this heat. It rises like steam from a bowl of bad stew. I try to breathe through my mouth. Mrs. Del Rosario has been staring at the sky for three days. Her skin has rotted, and the animals have taken their share. Her robe is thrown open, and her right leg is pointed in a strange direction. I try not to look when we pass. Roderick becomes stuck to his spot. He was a favorite of hers.

"Don't look. We must go." I nudge him.

He turns to me. His eyes are angry and red. He looks away.

The blue flies cover the bodies like death veils. They land on our faces, bringing kisses from the dead. We swat them away quickly.

Early this morning, before light, we heard the rumble of tanks and saw many Amerikano soldiers in green uniforms and heavy boots marching in the dark. Papa said that their destination would be the Paco railroad station, an area well guarded by the enemy.

Ever since General MacArthur's voice was heard on the radio saying that he has returned, all citizens have taken to hiding in their cellars. No one leaves their homes unless it is an emergency. It is best to stay hidden from the Japanese soldiers. Their tempers are short now that the Amerikanos have reappeared. They are quick to slap us on the face or grab a fistful of our hair. Everyone is under the suspicion of being for MacArthur.

There are barricades and checkpoints every two kilometers. At these spots the Japanese stand with bayonets and their special police, the Kempeitai. There are Filipinos who stand with them called Makapilis. It is short for Makabayang Pilipino, which means "our fellow countrymen." The Makapili are Japanese sympathizers. They are pro-Asian and do not want the Amerikanos to come back. The Makapilis help the Kempeitai hunt for guerrillas. Papa calls the Makapili cowards because they hide behind cloth masks. One finger from them and a Filipino can be sentenced to death. They will turn in their countrymen without hesitation. The Japanese have poisoned our minds against one another.

Amerikano bombers fly in a V shape above. We watch their silver underbellies, ripe with strength.

"This way," I tell my brother.

"V for victory. Go, Joe!" Roderick shouts with fist raised.

"Quiet," I tell him. We hurry, crouching low to the ground, ready to dive. The ground shakes and the sky rumbles from their passing. My head spins from our quick movements. I steady myself against a tree. Roderick is the same way. We have grown much weaker in the last month from lack of food. There is no food to be found. Any supply trucks are ambushed by the guerrillas. It was better when we had the cow; at least we had milk. Papa worked so hard not to slaughter her, only to have someone steal her when we slept.

"We must not move so fast. Stay close," I tell Roderick.

"Papa said to stay away from the city," he protests.

"I know." I keep moving, and he follows as always.

We walk south toward Manila.

"Papa told us not to go toward the city." Roderick catches up to me. He pulls my arm in frustration.

"It is okay," I tell him.

From behind comes the sound of tanks approaching. We stop arguing and jump into a banana grove. Five Amerikano tanks, followed by fifty soldiers on foot. We come out of our hiding place. A few of the soldiers look our way.

"Tommy guns," I breathe.

"And carbines," Roderick adds, shooting the trees with imaginary bullets. "But where are the big guns that have been shaking our house?"

"Already in Manila. Come. We will follow behind."

Roderick stares at me.

My stomach twists from hunger. Already my brow is dripping with sweat from the heat, and the dust is caught in my throat. I take my palm and swipe it across my eyes. "We have to find food. Papa's sickness is getting worse. Do you want to go back? Why don't you go back." I leave him standing with his arms crossed.

He follows. "Why do they not bury her?"

"Who?" I ask, looking at the scattered bodies. It is difficult to see whom the faces once belonged to.

"Mrs. Del Rosario."

"For what? She is gone."

"I hope someone buries me," Roderick says.

I look at my brother. "Do not say that. Make the sign of the cross." He does so. His blue shirt is too large. The collar falls over his shoulder, and I can see his skin stretched over the bones.

"Alejandro?" He holds my gaze.


"Will that happen to us?"

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What People are saying about this

Lisa Huang Fleischman
A magical and powerful tale of a makeshift family of villagers, trying to survive by courage and imagination during Japan's brutal occupation of the Philippines in World War II-a part of history we always need to remember.
—Lisa Huang Fleischman, author of Dream of the Walled City
Laurie Fox
In the same breath, sensual and political, urgent and transporting, Holthe's brave novel tantalizes as it inspires.
—Laurie Fox, author of My Sister from the Black Lagoon
Peter Moore Smith
When The Elephants Dance is far more than a beautifully written, emotionally moving, and searing description of what it's like to survive a war, it is an important artifact, within which is preserved the history and poetry of a culture. Its images, characters, and stories will remain with you forever.
—Peter Moore Smith, author of Raveling
From the Publisher
"A formidable first novel, worthy of a Verdi opera." —The New York Times

"Mesmerizing...truly exciting to read." —The Washington Post

"A powerful tale of the Philippine Islands and a testament to the resilience and courage of the Filipino people." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Readers who loved Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Allende's The House of the Spirits will welcome this novel." —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Kevin Baker
When The Elephants Dance is a moving and vivid tribute to the power of love, hope, and story telling during a time of crisis.
—Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland
Jacqueline Park
A fascinating journey into what is, for the most of us, unknown territory. Tess Uriza Holthe takes us into the heart of the Philipine struggle for freedom with its heroes, its turncoats, its brutality and the poetry of its folklore.
—Jacqueline Park, author of The Secret Book of Grazia Dei Rossi
Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Lush, arresting, and fiercely beautiful, When The Elephants Dance unfolds like a shadowy fugue, a waltz between light and dark, between frailty and strength. Holthe has created a gripping portrait of the Philippines and its struggle for self-determination.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin, author of Hand of Buddha

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Meet the Author

Tess Uriza Holthe grew up in a Filipino American family in San Francisco. When the Elephants Dance is inspired, in part, by the experiences of her father, who was a young boy in the Philippines during World War II.

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