Barefoot in Fire: A WW II Childhood-by Barbara-Ann Gamboa Lewis is a story of the World War II
years in Manila. It tells of the life of the author and her family in the Manila area during the period of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and the period when the Americans come back and drive the Japanese out. As the narrative begins, Barbara Ann is about eight.
It is not a story of war atrocities or family tragedy so much as a tale of hope and the strength of the human .
spirit. The family is an unusual one for the times. Barbara-Ann's parents met in the 1930 when the father was attending the University of California. When he and her American mother fell in love, married and then moved to the Philippines her family broke all ties with her. Both of her parents are atheists, something very rare in the Philippines then and now for that matter. Her father had a bit of a temper, spent most of his free time reading. He had an office job of some kind but like a lot of kids Barbara Ann does not know what he
did. Her mother was a teacher. She had a younger brother and younger sister.
As the bombs begin to fall, Barbara Ann's father digs a long trench and covers it with tin. The family retreats to it when ever the bombs fall. Soon Japanese soldiers are marching through the streets. They hear that
General MacArthur has left the Philippines and the Americans have surrendered. They begin to see Japanese everywhere and they fear them. Barbara Ann reminds us that the Japanese also brought with them a lot of Korean soldiers (Korea became a Japanese Colony in 1910 with western agreement). The Korean troops were given the worse assignments by the Japanese and were considered even crueler than the Japanese.
The times comes when conditions are so bad for the family that the parents decide they will move out of their house in Manila to a house in the countryside where they can stay for free (it is owned by a friend out of the country and he wants somebody to stay in it). It is too far for Barbara Ann and her siblings to go to a school so the parents begin to home school them. The father seems almost like an old school Marxist and her parents love to endlessly debate ideas with each other. Great efforts are made to protect the father's book collection.
One day a Japanese officer enters their house. Barbara Ann and her siblings were home alone. She acts like it is just a routine social call from a neighbor even though she is petrified. The Japanese officer had been drawn to come inside by the sound of Barbara Ann practicing the violin. The Japanese soldiers almost begins to cry as he pulls from his rucksack a photograph of a young boy playing the violin. The boy is his son. He tells Barbara Ann to keep practicing and that he will be back to see her. He never returns.
Things begin to get worse. The Japanese and Korean troops have taken nearly all the life stock and are using most of the good farmland to grow food for them. The family gets by on some near rotten rice and found vegetables (weeds) and some eggs from two ducks they are able to keep. One day far in the distance they see a huge fire and great clouds of black smoke. When the USA surrendered they declared Manila an open city so the Japanese would not burn it down. The Japanese Navy decided they would burn it and kill as many people as they could before they lose Manila. The book does not talk directly about this but it happens and we know it.
One wonderful day they see American troops in front of their house and find out the Japanese are gone.
Of course Barbara Ann and all the other kids are in awe of the Americans (they all seem huge to them). Americans begin to stop by the house. The father has gone back to work and the mother teaches kids at home. Barbara Ann is tested by the school authorities as she has not been in school for a while and placed as a second year HS student (right where she would have been had she never left school). American soldiers begin to drop by the homes of locals to say hello. They are welcomed freely by all. Barbara Ann's parents invite a lot of them to dinner. She fixes fried chicken and they bring canned goods. The soldiers have not had a home cooked meal in years. We can feel the happiness of everyone now that this terrible chapter has closed. Remember Barbara Ann's Mother and her parents stopped speaking when she moved to the Philippines. By the luckiest of coincidences one of the soldiers is the step grandchild of Barbara Ann's Mother. The mother learns this as it was common for soldiers to show off pictures of their families and the mother is amazed to see her own mother's picture. The soldier takes a picture of everyone and mails it back to Barbara Ann's grandmother who had not heard any news on the family in about ten years. The grandmother starts a correspondence. The two younger siblings were very sick. The mother was very weak also. I will compress events a bit. The grandmother brings the entire family to the USA. Barbara Ann, following her father, becomes a great reader. Her favorites are William Faulkner and the Russians. In 1971 she got a PhD in soil science at the University of California at Berkeley and as of the writing of this book was a professor at Northwestern University. Her younger sister joined the Philippine Repertory Theater and began a life on the stage. She still organizes childran's musicals and shows in Manila. (As a personal note, my two youngest daughters have attended classes at the same theater for two summers programs and loved it.) She graduated from the University of the Philippines and married one of her professors. Her brother had some rough times as a rebellious teenager but now has a good job as an area manager for a building supply company.
Bare Foot in Fire: A WWII Childhood reads just like a young adult novel. It is beautifully illustrated by Barbara Pollak. The production values of the book are very high. It was published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers, in Manila. Here is the publisher's description of the book:
"Read the Powerful True Story of a Young Girl Growing Up In Manila in the early 1940's Pooh hunched over the dictionary looking for the perfect name to call herself. She founded it under -Barbara, meaning foreign, strange. It was the right name for a feisty, smart, fiercely independent girl growing up bi-racial and poor in war torn Manila. Join Pooh in her adventures, whether it's chasing after wild ducks, foiling a chicken thief, playing withher own makeshift airplane, or having the pluck to play violin for a very sad Japanese officer. Barbara Ann Gamboa-Lewis gives an unflinching, candid portrayal of her pre-teen years set against the backdrop of a war that tested to the edge the wills of men, women and children alike. Barbara Pollacks charming drawings perfectly capture the highs and lows of Lewis's unforgettable childhood. Although World War II happened a long time ago, today's readers will identify with Pooh as she struggles between right and wrong, joy and sadness, obedience and rebellion."
This is the third book I have posted on concerning WWII in Manila. All of the books are for sale at National Book Store Branches in the Manila area for under 250 pesos. Every day there are fewer people among us with living memories of this period. There will soon be almost no one left to pass this history along to young people in the Philippines. This history is little taught in schools. I hope people who can buy these books will do so and then pass them along to others to read.