It seems somehow inappropriate to call a book so mired in war and misery magical, but in the case of When the Elephants Dance, there's no other word for it. Tess Uriza Holthe's first novel is a collection of supernatural Filipino legends recounted in her family for generations. Even with a backdrop of a brutal World War II battle during which women are raped, malaria is rampant and the lush land of the Philippines is destroyed, Holthe's writing is luminous and her characters so engaging that whole chapters go by without the reader remembering that war is central to the book.

After the Japanese occupation, Filipinos are forced into hiding to escape the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers and the bombs dropped by American planes. Trapped in a dark, crowded basement, the Karangalan family and their neighbors are desperate to forget their rumbling stomachs and the destruction of their island, so they begin telling stories to distract themselves. The book swings between the present gloom of their situation and the narration of these ethereal tales. Among those we meet are a beautiful peasant who sells mysterious potions and seeks the unattainable love of an aristocrat, and a boy who renounces his neglectful family in exchange for the affection of a powerful fisherman.

Interspersed with these beautifully told legends are perilous attempts to find food and survive the war, related from the alternating viewpoints of the Karangalan's young son and daughter and a neighbor guerilla warrior. Holthe's well-researched scenes of raging war and harrowing brutality are unrelenting and lead to a devastating and surprising climax.

Although Holthe grew up in the United States, her writing is obviously that of a woman born into the valued Filipino tradition of storytelling. The author based her book on the recollections of her Filipino parents, who often told her of their teenage years under Japanese occupation. At the age of 13, her father was captured and tortured by soldiers who hung him by his thumbs until they broke and bled. Holthe is haunted by the ordeals her family encountered, but doesn't allow this to cloud her writing with sentiment. Rather, she retells the stories with an unflinching passion and spirit that announce a bold new storyteller in the family.

Amy Scribner writes from Washington, D.C.

 

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