When the Elephants Dance

When the Elephants Dance

A Novel

Book - 2002
Average Rating:
Rate this:
"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."

Once in a great while comes a storyteller who can illuminate worlds large and small, magical and true to life. When the Elephants Dance introduces us to the incandescent voice of Tess Uriza Holthe, who sets her remarkable first novel in the waning days of World War II, as the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Karangalan family and their neighbors huddle for survival in the cellar of a house a few miles from Manila. Outside the safety of their little refuge the war rages on--fiery bombs torch the beautiful Filipino countryside, Japanese soldiers round up and interrogate innocent people, and from the hills guerillas wage a desperate campaign against the enemy. Inside the cellar, these men, women, and children put their hopes and dreams on hold as they wait out the war, only emerging to look for food, water, and medicine.

Through the eyes of three narrators, thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan, his spirited older sister Isabelle, and Domingo, a passionate guerilla commander, we see how ordinary people must learn to live in the midst of extraordinary uncertainty, how they must find hope for survival where none seems to exist. They find this hope in the dramatic history of the Philippine Islands and the passion and bravery of its people. Crowded together in the cellar, the Karangalans and their friends and neighbors tell magical stories to one another based on Filipino myth and legend to fuel their courage, pass the time, and teach important lessons. The group is held spellbound by these stories, which feature a dazzling array of ghosts, witches, supernatural creatures, and courageous Filipinos who changed the course of history with their actions. These profoundly moving stories transport the listeners from the chaos of the war around them and give them new resolve to fight on.

With When the Elephants Dance Holthe has not only written a gripping narrative of how Alejandro, Isabelle, Domingo and their community fight for survival, but a loving tribute to the magical realism that infuses Filipino culture. The stories shared by her characters are based on the same tales handed down to Holthe from her Filipino father and lola, her grandmother. This stunning debut novel is the first to celebrate in such richness and depth the spirit of the Filipino people and their fascinating story and marks the introduction of a talented new author who will join the ranks of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Manil Suri, and Amy Tan.
Publisher: New York : Crown, c2002
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780142002889
Call Number: F HOLTHE T
Characteristics: xi, 368 p. : ill., map ; 25 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment

Jul 22, 2013

Read this when it first came out, and again just now, 10 years later, and I still love it. It's beautiful and tragic all at the same time.

Jun 01, 2012

It's a good read- I like how Holthe intentionally included the Filipino culture all over the book.
Although one minor comment if I may are a few misspelled Filipino expressions, terms and names - and should be tolerated as Holthe was not born in the Philippines.
Over all it was a very good Filipiniana book!
Mabuhay & Salamat Ginang Holthe (Long live, thank you Mrs. Holthe)

Jan 15, 2012

A beautiful, sweeping novel that captures various sides of Philippine history and folklore. The story is told through the harrowing experiences of those struggling to survive the Japanese invasion. Holthe places her readers in their desperate situation, clinging to the last bits of family and home while death surrounds them. Despite the hardship, the characters share stories of their pasts that turn into 5 short stories in the novel. The short stories are richly filled with colour and fantastical imagery. Even though one may not want to be distracted from the main story into a side story, Holthe finds creative ways to keep one flowing to the other, leaving the most exciting side stories for last. In the end, the reader knows far more about all of the characters than they would have in a more traditional novel format, and all of the stories together combine at least a century of experience for the Filipino residents of Bulacan. As a Canadian-Filipino who grew up in Canada, this was an exciting and wholly different read -- a magnificent outlet to the culture of my distant people, something I would have not known of so clearly without an author like Holthe. To the everyday reader, this will be another historical drama that will grip you and give you characters to love.


Add Age Suitability

Jan 15, 2012

kaliko thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over


Add a Quote

Jan 15, 2012

"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 stand together when so much division has been created between us?"


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at SFPL

To Top