While Alejandro’s mother sat in the overcrowded cellar praying for her daughter to come back home, Alejandro and his little brother Roderick had to go out scourging for food while stepping among rotting bodies of their neighbours and hiding from the terror that are the Japanese soldiers.

Uriza Tess Holthe’s powerful and moving novel ‘When The Elephants Dance’ published on June 24th, 2003 by Penguin (originally published in 2002) is a story of the Karangalan family during the last few days of the Japanese-American war in the islands of Philippines in simple and chorus storytelling.

The mismatched neighbors have taken refuge in the dark cellar of the Karangalans as the Japanese soldiers wreck and shatter their lands above.

“Papa explains the war like this”, narrated thirteen 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 chickens.”

As the food gets scarce and the contributions from the neighbours thinner, some of them have to move out and find food. And everytime one of them leaves, it feels like the last goodbye.

And in these times when the air in the cellar is filled with fear and anger, the elders take turns narrating allegorical stories from their times, filled with rich Filipino history, culture and myths; from the Spanish rule to bottles magic, from the sight of the seer to ghost children. These stories become the soul of the novel with their love, grief, revenge, greed, race, morale, the strength of families and the weakness that it brings along, in hopes of sharing wisdom and courage needed for survival.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of three people – 13year old Alejandro Karangalan, his older sister Isabelle and a guerrilla leader Domingo Matapang. All three of them at some point are captured by the Japanese and go through gruesome and excruciating pain but none of them give up without a fight.

This novel is going to fill you up with so much sadness and knowledge about the war and what wars are capable of; but never in the least bit are you going to regret picking up this immortal historical fiction.

“Voices once silent sing out loud and clear…A powerful tale of the Philippine islands and a testament to the resilience and courage of the Filipino people.” – Gail Tsukiyama, San Francisco Chronicle

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