Cover image for When the elephants dance : a novel
When the elephants dance : a novel
Holthe, Tess Uriza.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown, [2002]

Physical Description:
xi, 368 pages : map ; 25 cm
Format :


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FICTION Adult Fiction Open Shelf
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A startling debut from a talented new young writer, WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE is a riveting epic about a family and their neighbors who band together to survive the brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, as the Americans fight to gain control of the war-ravaged island. Based on the experiences of her father, who was a young boy in the Philippines during World War II, Holthe's story begins during the final week of the ferocious Japanese-American battle for possession of the Philippines. Here, we listen to three distinct narrators who reveal the struggle to survive in a small community outside Manila, where the streets are littered with dead bodies and the threat of capture by Japanese soldiers is around every corner. First, thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan and his younger brother leave the safety of the basement where his family and others are hiding to go look for food for their family and medicine for their ailing father. They are caught by Japanese militants and wrongly accused of murder. Meanwhile, Alejandro's older sister, Isabelle, has been missing for days. As the family fears for her safety, Isabelle is met with the choice of avoiding a Japanese patrol or helping an injured guerrilla commander, whom she believes is responsible for the brutal Japanese counterattacks on their people. Her decisions lead her through a maelstrom of events that leave her stripped of her soul. At the same time, Domingo Matapang, the passionate guerilla commander, is torn between his pivotal role of helping his troops defeat the enemy, or protecting the lives of his wife and child. Will he follow the path of a warrior and a future with his soulmate, Chita, a feisty double agent, or the path of a provider for his wife Lorna and his beloved sons? As the war rages outside, five tales of hope and superstition unfold in the cellar. The stories, which are fueled by the myths and superstitions that were told with reverence in Holthe's Filipino household, help the civilians endure the atrocities and find hope in the midst of chaos.

Author Notes

She grew up in San Francisco, California, the only one of four siblings born and raised in the United States. She received her B.S. degree in Accounting from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and is a controller in Marin County California. She lives in Corte Madera with her husband Jason and their dog Nellie.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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 (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

With the exception of Imelda Marcos's shoe collection and Douglas McArthur's epithet "I shall return!" Filipino history is largely unfamiliar to North Americans. Despite substantial immigration from the Philippines, that nation's haunting story has been doomed to lie at the margins of US cultural interests. Thus, when a major imprint like Crown bankrolls a fat Asian American novel recounting native Filipino experience in WW II, attention will follow. Tracing the fates of the humble Karangalan family and its neighbors during the ghastly endgame of McArthur's counterattack against the Japanese, Holthe's novel borrows from magic realist tradition in crafting a tapestry of linked narratives. Horrific wartime civilian and guerilla resistance life contrasts with dreamy, escapist memories of bygone days drawn from the deep well of Filipino custom, psyche, and romanticism. As a first novel, this is a formidable accomplishment, combining the savage grit of a Pacific War bestseller with all the syrup of a historical bodice-ripper by Belva Plain. Amy Tan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez it is not, but those familiar with Filipino character and archetypes will attest that the novel offers a compelling look into this often-neglected community within the US's modern intercultural mosaic. Summing Up: Recommended. General collections. T. Carolan University of Phoenix, Vancouver

Booklist Review

"When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful," Alejandro Karangalan's father tells him, explaining the Philippines' position between the U.S. and Japan during World War II. As the two superpowers battle for control of the islands, the people of the Philippines are caught in the middle. Hiding from the brutal Japanese soldiers in their cellar, Alejandro, his family, and the friends who have moved in with them exchange mystical stories about their pasts. But the war is ever present: 13-year-old Alejandro is tortured when he goes out to get medicine for his ailing father. His older sister, Isabelle, is raped when she tries to help a badly injured guerilla, Domingo. Domingo, fighting for the freedom of the Philippines, is in direct opposition with Feliciano, a Japanese sympathizer, who can no longer ignore Japanese brutality after Isabelle's rape. Together, Domingo and Feliciano must put aside their differences to rescue Alejandro and Domingo's young son. Holthe expertly weaves the mystical stories of the characters with the harsh reality of war to create a vivid, gorgeous novel. --Kristine Huntley

Library Journal Review

This debut comes with a special endorsement from Crown Executive Editor Kristin Kiser, positioning it as the discovery of a great new voice. Holthe's story is set in the Philippines as the Japanese invade and features four people hiding in a cellar who tamp down their fears by telling mythic tales. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. "Yes?" "Will that happen to us?" Excerpted from When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.