Posted by: koolwine | April 22, 2011

Philippines: When the Elephants Dance

During World War II, a  group of fifteen bickering Filipino neighbors form a better understanding of each other while they hide from Japanese troops.

Country Focus: Philippines

When the Elephants Dance
by Tess Uriza Holthe
Originally published by Crown, 2002.
My edition: Penguin, 2003.  368 pgs.

Acclaim: National Bestseller

Tess Uriza Holthe set her novel on the island of Luzon in February 1945, after American General Douglas McArthur returned to fight the occupying Japanese.  The title When the Elephants Dance is the beginning of an idiom that concludes “…the chickens must be careful.”  Holthe writes that the elephants symbolize the Japanese and the Americans fighting over the Philippines and that the chickens represent the Filipinos, although the Filipinos in her novel are not “chicken” in the least.  They all harbor vast (and sometimes unbelievable) quantities of mental and/or physical strength.  Karangalan, the last name of two of the main characters, means honor.

When the Elephants Dance is nine stories rolled into one and touches on Philippine history, customs, folklore and vernacular.  The main story, about fifteen Filipinos hiding in a basement from Japanese soldiers,  is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different character.  Their sections incorporate five stories told by their comrades.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan leaves the safety of the basement  in order to trade cigarettes for food.  He is caught by Japanese soldiers and accused of murdering a Japanese officer.  Holthe based this section of the novel on her father’s experiences during the war.

Isabelle, Alejandro’s sister, had also gone in search of food and witnessed  the beating and escape of Domingo Matapang, a Filipino guerrilla leader and the husband of one of her basement companions.  Isabelle is captured on her way back to the basement and brought to a hotel that has been turned into a brothel for Japanese soldiers.  A Makapili (Japanese sympathizer) who had been sweet on Isabelle prior to the war finds her.  Too late to truly “rescue” her, he sneaks her out of the hotel.

Domingo’s wife and two young children are hiding in the basement with the Karangalans.  He checks on them periodically, but his heart lies in the field with his guerrilla troops.  Two of those soldiers include a woman he loves and a teenage boy who is like an adopted son.  Domingo is torn between staying with and protecting his family and leaving to fight for his country and join his friends.

Throughout, Holthe explores the obligations and complications of love, especially the pain that results from being forced to choose one love over another.  As one character warns, “This you must remember.  Choose quickly, and do not look back…when you begin to think of returning to your old life, flee, flee to the opposite direction.   Or it will be very bad for all concerned.  For then you will be divided, and then you will be of no use to anyone.”



  1. Finally finished reading “When the Elephants Dance”. Enjoyed it. I liked the imaginative storytelling and the drama of the war. The love story section near the end seemed forced to me, not as well told as the rest of the stories. I appreciated learning more about Filipino culture and history, too. Good selection. Thanks for exposing it to me.


    • Yeah, I agree. The earlier stories were better, and I enjoyed their folkloric elements. Had never heard of a Tikbalang before.


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