When The Elephants Dance

Paperback | June 24, 2003

byTess 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 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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From the Publisher

“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 il...

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.

other books by Tess Uriza Holthe

The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes
The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes

Kobo ebook|Jul 22 2008


When the Elephants Dance
When the Elephants Dance

Kobo ebook|Mar 26 2002


Format:PaperbackPublished:June 24, 2003Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0142002887

ISBN - 13:9780142002889

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Read from the Book

January 1945Papa 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?"

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONThe title of this powerful first novel by Tess Uriza Holthe refers to the precarious situation of its main characters—the Karangalan family and their neighbors and friends—as they huddle in a cellar on the outskirts of Manila in February 1945. In the words of thirteen-year-old Alejandro, one of the novel's three narrators, "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" (p. 3).Holthe, who was born in the United States, provides a grippingly realistic and compelling account of the last days of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. In writing When the Elephants Dance, she relied partly on research but also largely on the stories she heard as a child from her lola (grandmother) and father, who, like Alejandro, was captured by Japanese soldiers outside Manila, tortured, and released. These childhood stories made a deep impression on the author. Through them she succeeds in conveying the horror of war as well as the hope and healing that family can provide, and in the process educates us on the history of the Philippines, the resilience of its people, and the United States' role there.Throughout, Holthe keeps the reader close to the experience of war: "Another loud explosion, much closer this time. I feel our house shake above us. I can hear the wood and the bamboo splintering. Everyone screams" (pp. 69-70). Not only is the boy Alejandro mistaken for a guerilla and hung by his thumbs, but his seventeen-year-old sister Isabelle, narrator the second part of the novel, is brutally raped by a group of Japanese soldiers. The arbitrary cruelties of wartime are graphically rendered in the form of eyewitness reports told in the present tense: "Back to Manila. A caravan of walking skeletons. After an hour some of the women begin to fall. The men keep walking. When someone does not get up, the soldiers prod them with the points of their blades. Those without kin are not helped by the others. Those who fall are stabbed. They do not cry out, and no one speaks. It has become dog eat dog" (p. 229).Exposed to this barrage of atrocities, the main characters persistently cling to certain ideals, such as honor, family, religion, and patriotism. Though the assertion of these values helps the reader stomach the realism of history and war, Holthe does not reduce such high-minded principles to simple, clear-cut notions of right and wrong. In her hands, ideals are complex and difficult to realize: What is one's true identity? Where do our loyalties belong? For example, Domingo Matapang, the third narrator, is the leader of an underground resistance movement. His wife and two children are in the cellar hiding with the Karangalans, and his mistress is in the hills with his ragtag group of rebels. But Isabelle, who admires Domingo, is rescued instead by Feliciano, a Filipino who collaborates with the Japanese soldiers. Moreover, in the shelter with the Karangalans are Yukino Yoshi and her daughter, Mica, who are Japanese, but also Filipino citizens.Another type of realism found in the novel is the magical realism that pervades the mythlike tales that the refugees in the cellar tell each other in an effort both to escape and to understand their present reality. By telling a story, the miserly Aling Ana reaches out to save Isabelle from an engulfing bitterness, Mang Pedro makes Domingo aware of his family's needs, and the old Spaniard, Tay Fredrico, breathes life into the possibility of leaving one's family behind for the love of country. These diverting and enriching stories, little self-contained gems woven into the fabric of the novel, are beautiful and strange; their fantastic imagery—of sham potions, a church that sinks below the ground, ghosts, enchanted forests, and white trumpet lilies in the moonlight—animates the core of the novel.One of the novel's great strengths is its artful intertwining of the realms of myth and history. Tay Fredrico's fairy-tale love story, "Portrait of an Aristocrat," set in 1870, when the Philippines were under Spanish colonial rule, deals with a sixteenth-century curse, corruption in the church, and racism. "A Cure for Happiness" also exposes hypocrisy in the church, criticizing organized religion while upholding the mysteries of love and faith. The beautiful healer Esmeralda is the illegitimate daughter of a nun who refuses to acknowledge her. The whole town is enwrapped in hypocrisy, as the townspeople turn on the woman, to whom they are secretly beholden. Esmeralda's lover is betrothed to another woman for propriety's sake, and the church itself sinks into the ground during his wedding ceremony.When the Elephants Dance ends with the Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur's troops, as the surviving main characters begin to rebuild their lives. If the novel has illustrated the capacity of stories to help us survive hardship and interpret reality, it also, by concluding with a new beginning, points to their regenerative power. And just as the characters in the novel use stories to help them understand their lives, we as readers can carry the lessons in When the Elephants Dancefar beyond World War II and the Philippines to understand our own. ABOUT TESS URIZA HOLTHEBorn in 1966 to immigrant parents in San Francisco, Tess Uriza Holthe grew up hearing stories that brought her Filipino heritage to life. After graduating from Golden Gate University, Holthe worked as an accountant. She began writing what would become When the Elephants Dance, her first novel, during lunch breaks, evenings, and weekends, while still working full-time as a controller. The book was partly inspired by the experience of her father, who lived in the Philippines during World War II. Although Holthe had never been to the Philippines before writing the book, she succeeds in vividly evoking the country. She attributes this to the stories of her father and grandmother and to the constant flow of Filipino visitors to her family's house for mah-jongg games, church meetings, and reminiscences. On these occasions, she heard stories about forest elves and superstitions against whistling at night, as well as stories about World War II and surviving the battle for Manila in 1945. Holthe currently lives in northern California with her husband, Jason. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSHow do the lives of the individual characters reflect the proverb that supplies the book's title? Why are the first and last chapters of the book narrated by Alejandro? The main characters' family name, Karangalan, means "honor" or "one of honor" (p. 139). What is honor in the context of the book? Why won't Alejandro tell the Japanese soldiers about Domingo even after he thinks that Domingo is dead? Why does Carlito call for his father when Esmeralda is being attacked (p. 62)? Why does Tirso's wedding to Catalina continue even after Gabriel has been killed? Why does Roger hold a crucifix, but say "a different prayer, in the ancient language of the Morro people" to save his brother Roman from Mang Minno (p. 103)? Why does Isabelle help Domingo even though she initially says to herself, "I will not help him" (p. 118)? Why does Isabelle say that in many ways Feliciano "is similar to Domingo" (p. 162)? Why does Ana agree to visit Corazón? Who or what does Domingo love most—his family, Nina, or his country? Why does Fredrico offer to paint Divina's portrait? Why does Domingo refuse to join forces with Lieutenant Holden? Why does Domingo go back to save his family? Why does Fredrico downplay Domingo's heroism and suddenly affirm Mang Selso's? For Further ReflectionDo you agree with Mang Pedro or with Domingo on whether, in a defensive war, your family would be better served if you stayed with them or joined the resistance to fight? How, if at all, is a successful storyteller different from a successful historian?Related TitlesGiovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (1348-1353)Fleeing the plague of 1348, ten Florentines retreat to the countryside where they tell each other the one hundred stories that compose this exuberant masterpiece of medieval literature.Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)This epic novel incorporates the myths and stories of the author's childhood in its portrait of the rise and fall of a small Latin American town, viewed through the prism of a fantastically strange family.Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998)Beginning in 1959 in the Belgian Congo, this novel chronicles three decades in the life of an American Baptist missionary's family. Narrated by the missionary's wife and their four daughters, the book explores themes of identity, family, and nationality.Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (1992)Winner of the Booker Prize, this lyrical novel depicts the horrible effects of World War II on four characters whose paths cross at an abandoned Italian villa.Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997)During a tumultuous period in Indian politics, a family undergoes convulsive changes that reveal the complex relationship between private and public life in this lushly written, highly inventive novel that won the Booker Prize.

Editorial Reviews

"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