When the Elephants Dance

By Tess Uriza Holthe

JANUARY 1, 2022 • 368 Pages

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When the Elephants Dance is the story of the Karangalan family and their neighbors who seek refuge beneath the family’s home. Set during the waning days of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II, the group’s survival is threatened daily by ongoing battles with war, hunger, fear, and death.

The story begins with the perspective of the Karangalan’s young son, Jando, but provides a first person perspective from each of the characters when they recount their own tales of magic, misery, and love–– allowing us inside the varying thoughts and experiences of everyone in the camp. 

In the beginning of the book, there is a clear divide amongst certain characters in their attitudes, values and priorities, yet they all find connection and camaraderie in the stories they share with one another. These stories are secondary to the main narrative, but are sprinkles of magic realism that use folklore to highlight love, morality, compassion, culture, and the importance of family, which are all aspects of everyday life that become stark reminders of humanity during times of war when they are easily forgotten.

My favorite storyline was from the oldest character in the book, Tay Federico, who was a mestizo raised during the Spanish era and shaped by racist ideologies as a young man. Through his story, we learn how he had unwittingly fallen in love with a strong headed Filipino woman, who helps him outgrow his upbringing and use his art as advocacy. I’m just a sucker for a love story!

What captivates me the most in this story is the complexity of the characters. Nearly each one, apart from the children, have their own sins to atone for and yet, still I love and understand them and their choices. Still feel proud of them, of their evolutions, and their sacrifices. 

One thing to note is that WED is dense with trauma and violence, and I’m not one to romanticize such things ever. I felt as if there was never time to breathe as I was being pushed from one harrowing situation to the next, with a few touches of light interspersed within the narrative. Holthe does not hold back the ugliness that breeds in war, nor does she deny the bonds that are forged in them.

I do agree with some reviews claiming that the ending was rushed and perhaps “too clean.” Many of the obstacles (like Nina and Bartoy–– the guerrilla leader’s mistress and “adopted” son) were loose ends that had been cauterized with their deaths when I think they deserved a little more exploration. This especially stands true for Bartoy, who is a young boy that develops a disturbing fondness for violence. 

I can’t say I “thoroughly enjoyed” this book, as it’s not a light read by any means– and can you truly enjoy a book about war? But I will say that the writing is beautiful, the characters memorable, the stories dear, and no matter how many more books I’ll read, I will always remember this one.

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