The Power of Stories
(A Book Review of Tess Uriza Holthe’s When the Elephants Dance)
A group of neighbors seek shelter in the cellar of an abandoned house. They are cramped, huddled on the dirt, starving and terrified. Outside fierce gun battle rages on, bomb patters like rain drop on the pockmarked beauty of Manila and its countryside. Fires ablaze, consuming everything on its path in a deathly embrace.
This is the image that first bored it way in my mind while reading When The Elephants Dance, Tess Uriza Holthe’s 2002 debut novel set during World War II on the final turbulent week before Manila’s liberation inspired in part by the experiences of his father during the war.
And then another vision — this one tinge with memory — came before me: a child hunched in between her parents who, along with their relatives and neighbors, hid in an underground shelter screened by a bamboo grove nearby their house in Pampanga.
Her name is Juanita.
She’s my lola.
The novel is told through the three distinctive voices of thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan, his sister Isabelle and Domingo Matapang, a guerilla leader; each seeking normalcy amidst the chaos, dreaming of a better life for themselves and their family. Together with their friends and neighbors they try to endure the war hidden underneath the cellar of the Karangalan’s house. Yet what started out as a divided, bickering people struggling to stay alive in a confined room turns into a close-knit band of survivors as they tell each other mythical stories in order to “stay alive when you have died inside” while outdoor the war and its atrocities wreak the country in havoc.
Each story illuminates a ray of hope and became a food of inspiration not only to the characters but as well to the readers encompassing themes such as honor and courage, loyalty and betrayal, love and temptation, individuality and patriotism. At turns filled with bizarre and odd twists, at times mythic and supernatural bristling with folkloric wisdom, the tales presents the rich, colorful culture of the Philippine Islands and its people, revealing a country torn within, struggling on its path to unity and freedom, a country in search for its soul.
When Elephants Dance remains true to the Filipino grand tradition of oral history by way of the regions’ alamat (legends) and epic poems. Tess Uriza Holthe in her novel depicts, time and again, the power of stories and their capacity to change people. Reading the book reminded me greatly of my lola that lazy afternoon when she told me parts of her experiences growing up as a young girl during the Second World War. How the bombings had traumatized her for years, how she and her family have to put up with nothing but kamote and its tuber for sustenance, and how they stomached drinking water scooped from gutter, fearing to venture out of their safe haven to the nearest poso artesiano, which is miles away from their house, lest they be captured by the Kempetais, wrongfully accused as a guerilla, and brought to be imprisoned in their camp to suffer things too grisly to mention. The only thing I regret was that I treated hearing these stories with a child’s distanced nonchalance. I miss her terribly. If only she were alive today how I would love to hear her stories of the distant past once again; this time I would lap it with such a delight, heartily swigging in this wellspring of family history.
Near the end of the novel Domingo Matapang proclaims: “Run, find your voices again. Do whatever it takes and don’t give up.” It has become the clarion call that generations later people such as Holthe will rally, their voices reaching far and wide. It is in this way do we pay our ancestors and our country honor.
(Images owned and taken from John Tewell’s Flickr Photostream)