When the Elephants Dance

When the Elephants Dance - Tess Uriza Holthe The opening of the novel references and explains the title: 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." So yes, this is a story of the Philippines during World War II. And at first, I didn't think I'd like this novel much. Just before I'd read What is the What about genocide in the Sudan and then First They Killed My Father about genocide in Cambodia. I admit I found it a bit off-putting when I saw that like both of them, this was being told in first person present. God, I thought, not another story of misery wrapped in literary gauze! I've grown a bit wary (and weary) of the present tense in fiction. At first that was a technique that seemed fresh and often read lyrically--but I've seen it used so many times it now tends to strike me more as gimmicky and pretentious. But I was thoroughly won over by the end. Holthe said about the only thing she could find in the library about the Philippines were travel guides. She wanted to fill that gap and tell not only the stories she got first hand from her family about the Japanese Occupation, but interweave stories like those she was told as a child, tales of "ghosts and witches, always told with delicious darkness and magic." And though the mainline of the narrative is far from a mere frame a la Arabian Nights, interspersed throughout are several tales told by characters of ghosts and witches and dark spells and curses. Yes, there are also stories of atrocities here--graphic depictions of rape and torture and the brutal necessities of war. But the novel always kept sight of love and family and hope. Holthe weaves in a beautiful portrait of the Philippines and its people: Filipinos, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Americans, both rich and poor, old and young, especially in those short story interludes. She gives you a sense of the landscape, the cuisine, even a flavor of the different languages. And I felt surprisingly at home--my mother's family is Puerto Rican and the Philippines Holthe described reminded me a lot of Puerto Rico. Both are tropical islands and have had centuries of Spanish and decades of American colonization influencing their culture. Holthe also enriches her tale with a lot of Filipino history. I never knew the very name of the country came from King Philip of Spain. Or that there was a war of independence fought against Americans in the early 20th century. So I felt I learned a lot and I was entertained. All good.