Summary and book reviews of When The Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe

When The Elephants Dance

by Tess Uriza Holthe

When The Elephants Dance
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2003, 368 pages

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Book Summary

Once in a great while comes a storyteller who can illuminate worlds large and small, magical and true to life. Holthe's first novel is set at the end of WWII, as the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands.

"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.

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...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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..... this beautiful, harsh war story is no epic. Rather, Holthe presents personal, pointed fragments that clearly demonstrate history's cultural and personal fallout.

Booklist - Kristine Huntley

Holthe expertly weaves the mystical stories of the characters with the harsh reality of war to create a vivid, gorgeous novel.

Library Journal

Starred 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.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Romantic and patriotic heroes 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. . . . A well-orchestrated chorus of voices that should strike a chord with many.

Author Blurb Jacqueline Park, author of The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi
When the Elephants Dance is a fascinating journey into what is, for most of us, unknown territory. Tess Uriza Holthe takes us into the heart of the Philippine struggle for freedom with its heroes, its turncoats, its brutality, and the poetry of its folklore.

Author Blurb Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland
When the Elephants Dance is a moving and vivid tribute to the power of love, hope, and storytelling during a time of crisis.

Author Blurb Lisa Huang Fleischman, author of Dream of the Walled City
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.

Author Blurb Laurie Fox, author of My Sister from the Black Lagoon
In the same breath sensual and political, urgent and transporting, Hothe's brave novel tantalizes as it inspires.

Author Blurb Peter Moore Smith, author of Raveling
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.

Reader Reviews

julyssa

just amazing.
This has easily became one of my most favorite books. The stories that are being told are just so raw and true. They made me think so much after reading the stories from Alejandro, Isabelle, Domingo, Tay Fredrico, Roman, and Aling Anna. It was very ...   Read More

BabyGirl_Bookluvr92

I loved it
This book is awesome and anyone who doesn't like it, just don't know what they're reading and how true and realistic this is.

marj

im in ninth grade, this book is by far one of the best i have ever read

Cheryl Lingbanan, UCSC

I read the book 3 years ago and I can still say that this is my favorite book ever...

I can still remember the first time I read the novel...I laughed, I cried...
The time and setting was described beautifully. Some of the events and images brought ...   Read More

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