Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores (2002-144 pages) is a very well written, simply and straightforwardly told story of the experiences of a young middle class boy growing up in Manila during the period of the Japanese occupation. (The years covered are 1940 up to 1947.)
Eduardo has a very good comfortable life. He is the only child of a teacher and an Engineer living in a nice part of Manila. His family has a full time cook and gardener, as all middle class people did. He has some German playmates on his block. Slowly Eduardo begins to see his normally relaxed father becoming tense and nervous all the time. He observes his parents constantly talking over "the news". They have never done that before.
One day he sees his father, who probably has never done a days manual labor in his life, begin with the help of the gardener to dig a big hole in the ground. He hears his parents fighting over the hole. They do not fight very often. His mother says that she will not hide in a hole in the ground no matter what happens. His father then says "Ok we can stay in the kitchen as the walls are thickest there". Eduardo knows soon enough that they are talking about a bomb shelter. His father tries to make the family feel safe.
"No one will attack us. Who wants to fight the Americans anyway? Not the Japanese. It would be like
cockroaches wanting to fight tigers!" Eduardo knows his father does not quite believe this. One day Eduardo's German playmates tell him that they are moving back to Germany as their father says war is coming.
The radio begins to advise people about practice bomb attack drills. The young men of the neighborhood
treat it as a game. Then one day "Japanese planes came. Fast, Diving...like thousands of saws on steel. The planes dropped their bombs on Manila...The air-raid siren would scream any moment of the night or
day...I felt tired all the time like I hadn't slept for a hundred years." The family hides in the kitchen. The raids seem to go on forever. They are lucky, no bomb falls on their house. Eduardo's father goes out to check on family members. He comes back to report the many deaths and the destruction of a beautiful city. "I saw a dead child your age on one of the streets of Santa Cruz...what if it had been you?". One day the family look out the window and see a terrible sight, Japanese soldiers marching down their street. They are horrified as the Japanese bang on their door. The father goes to the door trying his best to be calm. The family is lucky. They have a small house so they Japanese do not want it. Their neighbors with bigger houses are being put out of their homes with nothing. Soon Eduardo's mother Lourdes is afraid to go out of the house for fear of being molested by the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers begin to take all the pigs, chickens and most of the rice. Lourdes uses her ingenuity to feed the family as best as she can. "Mama said we are running out of rice and we had to make what we have last longer. She had camote leaves and katuray flowers floating in the lugaw as well as bits of tuyo which made the soupy rice quite tasty."
Eduardo begins to see his father and other men in the neighborhood talking when there are no Japanese around. Eduardo asks his father what they are talking about. For the first time in his life Eduardo's father raises his hand as if he will strike him and tells him to go away. It turns out the men are working on a plot to steal back the rice from the Japanese. If Eduardo had heard about this and repeated it anywhere everybody
involved would be killed. The plan works and they get more rice. One day shortly after this the Japanese walk into the family house at dinner time. They look in the pots and all over but they do not find any stolen rice as Lourdes had hid it well. When the soldiers find a full pot of quality rice in a neighbors kitchen the father is taken away.
Life goes on and people begin to adjust and cope. People have to feed and protect their families. A lot of people have to compromise their integrity to do this. It might be easy to say you would give up your life rather than do that but if you had a wife and three children who would die also the decision is not so clear.
On the other hand, if you are seen by other residents as helping the Japanese you could be killed as a collaborator. Likewise spiteful neighbors or business associates could report you to the authorities as anti-Japanese, in exchange for a few kilos of rice for their families.
One day Eduardo hears a horse coming down the street. It is being ridden by a Japanese captain. This is an amazing sight to Eduardo. The captain eventually become friends with the boy. One day the captain shows him his pictures of his beloved wife and his father and the Japanese begin to seem a bit more human.
Well known historical events are brought into the story. The much revered General MacArthur keeps his promise to return. We see the Japanese digging a huge hole in the ground and carrying all sorts of big boxes into the ground. In due time the Japanese are beaten and surrender. We find out that the Japanese captain had left a mysterious map where Eduardo could find it once the captain died. We do not see him die but we know he did. Eduardo and his father spend two days studying the map until they see it as the clue to buried treasure.
I have told more of the plot of this story than I normally would in a review as this wonderful book will be hard to obtain outside of the Philippines. It is not on Amazon.com. This is a shame as this well told story deserves a place among young adult literature on WWII. It is the only book of its kind that I have seen on this topic. I learned a lot from this well written book. It kept my interest through out and I cared about Eduardo and his family. There are no great horrors shown in the book. It is a good look at Manila in WWII. It demonstrates how values can be eroded by the compromises made to survive. It spotlights well the suffering and heroism of the ordinary people of the Philippines. I fear this book will never reach the wider audience it deserves. People familiar with Manila will appreciate the local references.
Mel U-Quezon City
The Reading Life