Book Concierge's Reviews > When the Elephants Dance

When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
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Dec 13, 10

Read in December, 2010

First sentence: [i]Papa explains the war like this: “When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.”[/i]. 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 subject to being picked up by the Japanese, seemingly at random, only to be tortured or killed. The book focuses on an extended family living in the basement of an apparently abandoned house. They venture out, one or two at a time, only to forage for food or medicine. To comfort themselves and each other they tell stories – sometimes traditional Filipino folk tales, and sometimes stories from their own past. These are intended to help each other understand and endure their situation, or to teach a lesson they will need to survive.

It’s an interesting idea and it could have been a really good book, but Holthe just wasn’t quite up to the task. The basic plot of the family’s enduring/surviving the occupation is a riveting one, and Holthe really shines in those sections of the book. However, it seems she was trying too hard to impress, or that she was determined to include every possible Filipino tradition and folk tale in an effort to educate the reader about her parents’ homeland. When she interrupts the plot line to tell another story, she loses momentum, and the attention of the reader.
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