The 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.
Born 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.
For Further Reflection
Giovanni 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.