When the Elephants Dance (The Philipines)

WhenElephantsDancePhilipinesby Tess Uriza Holthe

Let me just say I wish the Negrito tribes indigenous to these islands, and the Austronesians who migrated there had fought off the Spanish, because the name of their country wouldn’t be so damned hard to spell!

Ok, I’m over it.

This book was recommended by my friend Erin who is in my writer’s group. I *loved* this book.


It starts out with a group of people who are hiding in a cellar in Manila as the Japanese (the elephants) stomp around gang-raping women; torturing men and small boys by tying them to sheet metal and leaving them to fry in the sun; and the corpses are piling up like cordwood. Conditions during the last frantic days before the return of Douglas MacArthur are hellish. Will he return or won’t he? And will the Japanese have tortured everyone to death before he gets there?

The people in the cellar include:

  • An old Spaniard and his cowardly 1/2 Filipeno  son
  • A Japanese woman and her daughter (The husband/dad died in an internment camp when the Americans were in control of the islands)
  • Two young brothers whose mother is dependent on them to forage for food by selling scavenged cigarettes
  • The wife of a freedom fighter and her two young sons and her teenage daughter

What’s great about this book is the stories that the people tell in the cellar while they’re waiting for their loved ones to return. You find out what led all these people to this moment. The old Spaniard is a talented and even slightly famous painter. He had a great romance with his son’s mother. From him, you learn about how the Spanish thought the natives were low class and treated them badly. But he fell in love with his son’s mother and started standing up for her male family members when they were unjustly jailed and punished by the fat Spanish priests who lusted after the pretty virgins. And he got exiled for it.

One of the men in the cellar was enticed by black magic when he was little, because his father wasn’t interested in him so he tried too hard to get his attention. Fortunately the boy’s grandfather and his older brother rescued him from the black magic practitioner.

The cowardly man redeems himself during the final bombing of Manila and earns his old father’s respect at last.


All the characters are intriguing, but none more than the freedom fighter, Domingo Matapang. This man runs into the little boy narrator, Alejandro, a few times when he and his little brother have been captured by the Japanese. In many scenes, he is the only man with the courage to stand up to evil and  give others strength by his courage. The Japanese don’t have a picture of him so don’t know what he looks like–only his name. Nobody gives him away.


The hero Domingo Matapang’s weak spot is his romance. Unfortunately it isn’t with his wife, the mother of his two sons. He is desperately in love with a freedom fighting woman who lives with his guerilla fighters in the hills. Finally his cellar is raided and he’s captured along with all the others. His well-trained wife doesn’t embrace him or even look at him, because for her safety she has to pretend they don’t even know each other.

One of my favorite parts in the book is when the boy narrator’s sister Isabelle is rescued from the Japanese by a boy she had a crush on before the war. He has been serving the Japanese as a collaborator, but seeing Isabelle about to be gang-raped by soldiers is enough to make him turn his coat and desert. Unfortunately not quite in time, but at least she’s alive. She in turn saves him from the wrath of Domingo Matapang who hates traitors.


Excellent book on many levels. Magical realism. Gripping and thrilling race through history. Many layers of the Philipines…many peoples… classes…languages… much time…many different experiences. Read it, read it, read it.

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