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When the Elephants Dance
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When the Elephants Dance

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  2,258 Ratings  ·  337 Reviews
In the waning days of World War II, as the Japanese and U.S. forces battle to possess the Philippine Islands, the Karangalan family hides with their neighbors in a cramped cellar, where they glean hope from the family stories and folktales they tell each other. These stories of love, survival, and family blend the supernatural with the rich, little known history of the Phi ...more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published June 24th 2003 by Penguin Books (first published 2002)
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The truth about stories, is that that's all we are – Thomas King

The reality described in these pages of the Phillipines during WWII is intolerable, and there is a stark, necessary novel forming a core here of that reality, consisting of terrible scene after terrible scene. But thankfully, the varied characters of the suffering group have not lost their stories, and they keep each other going, and impart urgent advice, by telling them, thus interleaving the horror with a dazzling plethora of tale
K.D. Absolutely
Jul 11, 2011 K.D. Absolutely rated it liked it
If I were the mayor of Manila, I would give a symbolic key to the city to the Tess Uriza-Holte and declare her as city’s adopted daughter. If the good mayor could do that to Manny Pacquiao or to many visiting class B showbiz personalities, why not this Filipino-American author who took great interest to write this exceptional book about the Philippines particularly the City of Manila? A book that covers a sheer span of time in Philippine history from the Spanish era to the waning days of the Jap ...more
Jan 25, 2008 Estela rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Estela by: Geraldine
My sister-in-law gave this book for my unexpected trip to the Philippines. I didn't open the book til I got to my grandparents home and ... I was completely absorbed & had a hard time putting this book down (it was as if I was reading a long lost relative's diary). I caught myself pausing amongst certain chapters, looking at where I was at the current time, and just imagining what took place over 50 years ago here in the Philippines.

This book provided pieces of Philippine history that I use
Lisa (Harmonybites)
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
Jul 26, 2007 Beth rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bookgroup
When the Elephants Dance is the story of the Philippine's during WWII after the Japanese had taken control of the islands. Due to exorbitant costs and danger of death most families at that time hid with local neighbors and friends, only going out to trade or search for food to survive. This book is the story of one family - hiding in their basement with 11 neighbors and friends.

The book is broken down into 3 main parts - the first being told by the 2nd child Alenjandro, the second being told by
Aug 11, 2011 Apokripos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who want to discover more about the Philippine Islands
Recommended to Apokripos by: the "Voice"
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, T
Jun 05, 2007 Laura rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I was sucked into this book and found myself reading it late into the night. It takes place in the Philippines at the end of WWII when the Japanese are beginning to lose hold of the island. The is a part of fairly recent history that I shamefully didn't know much about. We always hear about Corregidor and MacArthur, because those were American sufferings and American heroes, but we never hear about how horribly the Philippine people suffered not only under the Japanese during WWII but previously ...more
I think my three stars are for how easy a book this is to teach for students being so receptive to it; I've seen students of Filipino American literature find this book accessible and interesting. For some reason students for classes I have TA'ed identify with these stories, or rather, students identify with the author's disconnect with Philippine history and the country itself. This disconnect is apparent in the author's writing, in which descriptions of the land, the people, etc. appear second ...more
(Final view, on completion of the book, found at the end.)


Oh, I am struggling...... Every chapter is the voice of another character. In this way you see what is going on in the head of the prime characters. That I have no complaint with. What I hate is that in each chapter there is also a story. And that story has always a moral. These stories chop up the book, and they are so simplistic. I just swore, OMG, here comes this chapter's story. Here comes the lesson. This is like a s
Jun 12, 2009 Sally rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone - really interesting story about the experience of the Filipinos during WWII
Recommended to Sally by: widely recommended
This is a wonderful book. We read this captivating novel in the Mostly Literary Fiction group in April 2009, with a follow-up Q&A with the author herself, Tess Uriza Holthe, on the network. Check it out at:
Nov 11, 2012 Cheryl rated it really liked it
Recommended to Cheryl by: Judy
Seriously, this book was like drinking cold guava juice on a sweltering day. It is World War II and the Americans are fighting to take back control of the Philippines. Meanwhile, the Filipinos must hide and wait out the war because the ones caught are being tortured and held in Japanese camps.

"Papa says that the Philippines is far, far behind the other countries. He says that we are like abused children who have never been allowed to grow. How can we care for ourselves when we have always been t
Rashad Pharaon
May 26, 2012 Rashad Pharaon rated it really liked it
Didn't think I'd like this book when I first picked it up. Honestly, it was the best choice at the time (New Arrivals at B&N). Boy, was I mistaken. I was drawn into the plot within the first three pages, and addicted since. Since I am also a huge fan of Asia-based stories, I easily clicked into it. The setting is in Philippines during the Japanese invastion and Tess, the author, has an excellent voice and descriptive style.

Hauntingly beautiful and soulfully written. I wonder why authors lik
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
This is one of those books that engaged me, but for which I can come up with little praise in retrospect. At first I wanted to round up to 3 stars, reflecting my level of enjoyment, but quality-wise it’s more of a 1.5. So we'll call it a 2.

When the Elephants Dance purports to be a tale of civilians living through the Japanese occupation (and American recapture) of the Philippines during World War II, narrated alternatively by a nationalist guerrilla leader, a teenage girl, and her preteen brothe
Oct 28, 2012 Judy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Around the World readers
From the title and opening chapter explanation of when the elephants dance to the last adieus of Mabuhay, this book is rife with symbolism and Filipino folklore.

The story revolves around a diverse group of people hiding from the Japanese in the basement of a village home. Time is passed when members of the group tell the stories of their lives. Each story is unique and lends a different perspective on Philippine culture. I was impressed with the way the author was able to put so much material i
Dec 23, 2007 langa rated it it was amazing
this book came to me as a gift from a dear friend and i was eager to read it, since my own family comes from the Philippines and this book tells the little known history of this country of over 7,100 islands. set in World War II during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. this novel puts great emotional demands on the reader, your heart breaks at the extreme suffering and tragedy of war and the ravages of colonialism. but ultimately you celebrate the strength of the human spirit and the c ...more
Aug 15, 2008 Sarahldalton rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in human survival
Recommended to Sarahldalton by: a teaching collegue and a student
Stories are to humans as fur is to animals. This book, about the Filipino experience of the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines in WWII, is based on the author's family's own heirloom stories of the war. The Karangalan family, along with about 10 of their neighbors hide in their basement in order to avoid the Japanese discovering their existence. Tensions easily spark between the different characters over finding food, missing family members, surviving the terrors of war, etc. It is in these ...more
Jul 10, 2007 Athena rated it it was ok
Shelves: filipiniana, novels
Riddled with cliches, geographical and cultural inaccuracies, and one-dimensional characters. It also demonstrates a very poor understanding of how socio-economic class functions in the rural Philippines. The storytelling is decent, but there are better novels on the Philippines during WWII out there (When the Rainbow Goddess Wept by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, for one).
Missy J
Popular folk dance in the Philippines called tinikling. Dancers skillfully jump above the bamboos that are slammed against each other to provide a steady rhythm.

God knows how difficult it is to find Filipino literature abroad, especially for foreigners, who don't read Tagalog or any of the languages spoken in the Philippines. When I joined Goodreads in 2012, I was looking for Filipino literature, but the few Filipino books I found were not available in my local library. So instead I read a short
Book Concierge
First sentence: Papa explains the war like this: “When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.”. I first picked up this book because of the title and this opening line. The elephants in this tale are the Japanese and Americans fighting over the Philippines. The Filipinos are the chickens.

The novel takes place during WWII, towards the end of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. The Filipinos had suffered greatly during those three years of occupation. They were starving, and subj
“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.”

When the Elephants Dance is a perfect blend of two topics I really enjoy: first, it is a novel
Dec 30, 2011 Moose rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Adults
Recommended to Moose by: Mother
This book is not for the faint of heart by any means. It's graphic about the torture and suffering that the people in the Philippines went through at the hands of the Japanese during WWII. Just reading some of the experiences that people went through was horrific and disturbed me to my core.

I'm not an expert on WWII nor on the history of the Philippine Islands so I can't comment on how accurate Holthe's retelling of history is. However, her writing is captivating. The book is divided into four
Jennifer de Guzman
Jul 07, 2011 Jennifer de Guzman rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
I have not come across a lot of novels dealing with the Filipino experience during World War II, so I think this book fills a necessary role. The stories in it are intriguing and often very lovely. However, I found that its position as the writer's first novel is very obvious. There is a lot of technical awkwardness that made me too aware of the author's process.

For example, the stories are told by different people but do not each have a distinctive voice. In fact, the voices of the characters
Feb 06, 2008 April rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sad to say, even though I am Filipino, I have never read a book by a Filipino author. This book takes place during WWII when the Japanese occupied the Philippines. While reading this book I called my mom she told me stories of my own family during that time. People do amazing things and find inner strength when faced with adversity.

The author does a great job in creating believable Filipino characters. I could imagine and hear the way the characters would talk and express themselves, it was won
Jun 16, 2012 Malot rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i was unsure that i would like this book when my book club/forum have chosen this, actually won the votes, i was hesistant to join in reading this book. pero ng nasimulan ko na, i was amazed how it got me hooked and had this interest to follow the story. fully entertained ako sa mga kwento dito. sabi ko nga parang karinderya na naka latag halos lahat ng putahe. gusto ko rin kung paano nilatag ng author yung istorya nya at kung paano nya na-inculcate yung mga natutunan nya from her grandparent's ...more
Dec 25, 2008 Rosa rated it really liked it
"Papa explains the war like this: 'When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.'" The elephants in question are the Americans and the Japanese, fighting for possession of the Philippines. The chickens are, of course, the ordinary Filipinos. Three of these "chickens" by turns tell us the story of the Japanese occupation as a small neighborhood near Manila literally goes underground, hiding in the cellar and swapping stories. This story was very well written and I enjoyed finding out ab ...more
missy jean
Feb 20, 2009 missy jean rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
This book took me back to the Philippines--at least in terms of the food and flowers and folklore that I remember from the time I lived there. It's the story of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII, and if I didn't feel such a connection to the Philippines, I probably would have like the book a lot less. There were a lot of technical problems (stilted dialogue, awkward transitions, etc.) that distracted me, but ultimately I enjoyed the folklore retellings enough that I can stil ...more
May 06, 2016 Meg rated it really liked it
This book was exceptional. It dealt with some of the history of the Phillipines when the Japanese was trying to rule.
Jan 04, 2009 Maltaise rated it it was amazing
I found this book by luck when I decided to go to the bookstore on my lunch hour. The book tells the story of numerous individuals who find themselves together in the last days of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Folklore is a large part of Philippino culture. Each individual tells their story about how the war has affected them and their role in the war along with a folklore story.
This is one of my favourite books-probably because I was unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Apr 01, 2008 Faith rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
While it was fascinating to learn more about the Philippines involvement in WWII and their culture overall, I absolutely detested this book. The author is courageous in telling her family's heart-breaking story of survival through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during the war, but the subject matter was so disturbing and her tale so graphic, I had nightmares for a week. Read the Children of the Promise series instead if this topic interests you.
Shweta Ganesh Kumar
May 11, 2014 Shweta Ganesh Kumar rated it really liked it
A moving novel that beautifully brings together actual history as well as folklore. I loved this book and I am grateful to Goodreads and its recommendations, which is how I stumbled across it.

Written by a Filipino American writer, Tess Uriza Holthe, the book is set during the last week of the Japanese occupation of The Philippines and switches from the gruesome present to other eras in the form of tales narrated by a group of ten huddled in the cellar of a house.

Parts of the book are very dist
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TESS URIZA HOLTHE is the author of the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling When the Elephants Dance. She grew up on a Filipino-American family in San Francisco. When the Elephants Dance is inspired, in part, by the experiences of her father, who was a young boy in the Philippines during World War II.

Tess Uriza's second book, The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes, was a San Francisco Chronicle
More about Tess Uriza Holthe...

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“When you start to say to yourself, just one look back, just one glance, the danger will have begun for you.” 5 likes
“My heart aches for my people. I don’t understand why God gives more power to some and less to others.” 1 likes
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