This novel draws attention to a protagonist’s narrative of an obscure chapter of the Philippine-American War. Full of action and drama, it vividly portrays an oppressed people's predicament driven into ambivalence, duplicity, and expediency that would compromise ideology but for the ultimate common good—Peace. It happened more than a hundred years ago, but still relevant, and timely in our conflicted world today.
As an eyewitness, Felipe narrates his first-hand account of the Balangiga massacre and its Aftermath. He recalls his ambivalent roles as a teenage Filipino houseboy of the massacred Company C. Tipped by his friends, he did not tell Capt. Connell about the plot. During the attack, he fought with them, fleeing with the surviving Yanqui soldiers to Basey. His insurrecto brother Victor took him to the Sohoton camps, throwing him to the other side of the conflict. In the brutal retribution campaign by the Americans to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness,” he witnessed the cruel treatment of his compatriots, the tortures, the killings, and the summary executions of Maj. Waller’s mutinous cargadores, including his brother, Waller’s accused would-be assassin during the Lanang-Basey march. These atrocities shocked the conscience of America, leading to the court-martial of the General in command, the operations Major and his lieutenants.
“I watch smoke from my cigar dissipate into thin air, pondering how much they resemble our lives and dreams. A puff, thick and dense, slowly drifts away, leaving no trace. That has happened to many of us – our lives and dreams, easily forgotten, so unimportant, so inconsequential.”
This novel brings to the forefront a time often overlooked in history – the Philipine-American War of 1899. Full of action and drama, this story portrays an oppressed people’s predicament wedged between loyalty to their own nation and the allure of the American-style infiltrating their shores. Yet, this drive pushes them into an ambivalence and duplicity that would compromise ideologies for the common good, which is, of course, peace. Even though this happened more than a hundred years ago, the theme is still relevant today and very timely in the world in which we live.
Felipe is an eyewitness to the tragedy of this war, and narrates a first-hand account to his grandson of the Balangiga massacre and the aftermath of that horrific day. As a teenage houseboy of the American soldiers of Company C, he fails to tell Captain Connell of a ‘tip-off’ he gets from his Filipino friends of a possible attack. When the attack happens, Felipe finds himself fighting on the side of the Americans, and fleeing with the Yanqui soldiers to Basey, while his own brother, Victor, is part of the insurrection that slaughters the American soldiers.
Later his brother takes him to the Sohoton camps, and he is melded into the other side of the conflict where he witnesses the brutal retribution brought against the Filipinos, the vow to turn Samar into a ‘howling wasteland’, as well as the cruel tortures and killings by Major Waller, which include his brother, Victor.
The atrocities of this conflict created a wave of controversy in the United States, as news reached the American people and the government of water-boarding and outright savage torture, all leading to Waller’s court martial.
This was a difficult and yet, incredible book to read as I knew very little of this conflict and was fascinated to learn of this overlooked history. To tell this story from the point of view of someone who actually lived the history was heartbreaking, and there were moments when the description tore my heart out. However, there was several instances of repetition throughout the storyline, which did not distract too much as I attributed the technique to the actual character’s age at the beginning of the story. As if the story is told by an ageing grandfather who has a tendency to repeat details along the way.
I was particularly fascinated with the excerpts of poetry inserted into the story which was a clever and masterfully done way to depict the brutality of war and living in that era and country. Which brings me to the first of the quotes I highlighted during the story:
“Were I to write historical facts and critiques in verse, perhaps history would become more interesting?”
As well as, “for historians, second-guessing protagonists in history or criticizing their actions is easier to deal with than what those protagonists faced at the moment.”
Very true, indeed. Sometimes, while reading this book I felt as if I was reading a literary novel rather than a historical novel, since the lessons taught truly resonated in so many of the passages, such as this one which entwined the takeover of this small island by the Americans and what it did to the people there:
“I mulled over how a small fish would survive the day on chances alone, not end up devoured by a larger one, or eaten on the dinner table after being hauled from the sea by a fisherman. What good would that serve the little fish? None, but it would make the bigger fish stronger, and the man eating it healthier and live longer. I suppose that’s how things work as a whole.”
Yes, this is a story of American domination and greed, the total disregard for another nation, a small nation’s autonomy and identity, all for the positioning of a larger ‘fish’ to become stronger and healthier, flexing muscles and obliterating cultures. However, this also shows the other side, a view of the small fish looking innocent while hiding pirahna-like teeth to devour in one sudden attack.
Knowing this is a true story told by one of the eyewitnesses brings the book into a near non-fiction status, but the fluid way the author delivers the story shows the artistry of a successful historical fiction novel. All the characters, from the main character, Felipe, to the the alluring and dangerous beauty, Sonia, are all fleshed out, three-dimensional characters whose choices connect well with the reader. The author gives us slices of their personalities, done in a clever way to bring them to life, such as when Felipe at four-years-old burst into raucous laughter that broke the silence of a High Mass, and chanting ‘chocolate checolorum’ for ‘Dominus voviscum’ - a scene which brought a smile to my face and endeared this character to me. So, later, when he witnesses the horrors of the massacre... well, I ached for him.
Again, there are so many selections of delicious phrasing throughout the book, some of my favorites I just have to share:
“Binibingka is a predicament where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It takes a comparison with baking bibingka, or rice cake. The bibingka cooks in the middle of the fire, over and under it.”
“Adults tend to overlook how much children are capable of knowing, that important things sometimes can be learned from them, were they only to listen.”
“The fraternal bond among soldiers transcends beyond any display of sadness. Soldiers do not shed a tear for their fallen comrades. They kill for them. If the blood of brothers were thicker than water, soldiers’ blood would be thicker than most.”
And this, which stood out as powerful - “They used to joke among themselves that all Filipinos look alike. That’s true. I cannot tell a white man from another white man, a black man from another black. You have to get to know what is in his heart to see a person. You need to know his character to like him. You had to know fully well that he is not an enemy.” - a statement for our time speaking from the past, from over a hundred years ago, declaring like a bugle call that in order to look beyond race, you have to take time to get to know someone, to want to see the heart pumping below the color of skin.
And last, this powerful poem to encompass all that Felipe endured – these are a few lines:
“There are “secrets” in a war that just cannot be scrutinized or revealed
And “truths” that cannot be written or compromised, are often sealed,
lest the revelation derail the conduct of war being fought,
desecrate our heroes, who died so that we live the goals we sought....
Better yet melt our bolos, dismantle our guns,
leave none to spare
For without these arms and weapons,
to start a war we’ll never dare.
When we’ve become resisters all,
who will be our enemy?
The kind of war we used to fight, nobody could start.
As the author uses his character, Felipe, (himself) to teach a lesson to his grandson, he reaches into the reader’s heart and teaches a profound lesson – the meaning, the message, and the lessons learned – within this one storybook.
“Ghosts of the Insurrection” receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company.