Stories of war are perhaps most compelling when told through the eyes of children, whose innocence is always so tragically incongruous to the adult madness that rages around them. "When the Rainbow Goddess Wept," a first novel by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard that chronicles the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II, is no exception.
Told by nine-year-old Filipina Yvonne Macaraig, the narrative is rendered in a touchingly plain style that manages to be both wondrously childlike and chilling in its realism.
Brainard slips almost effortlessly from Yvonne's fairy-tale musings to unsentimental descriptions of people who have lost limbs, eyes and fingernails, of bloated corpses that she and her friends discover bobbing in a river, of children who have been bayoneted to death in their homes.
The proliferating horrors constantly threaten to overtake Yvonne's spirit, but time and again her quiet, resilient optimism finds full expression in the native epic tales passed on to her by the household cook Laydan, and in her family's unfaltering love.
The book opens in 1941 on the island of Ubec in the Philippines, to idyllic scenes of Yvonne cavorting with her cousin Esperanza and sharing intimate moments with her father, mother, grandfather and aunt. They all live in a sprawling house in a peaceful village.
But as the Japanese encroach and American forces fail to save the day, things quickly change.
Yvonne's family decides to flee Ubec to the countryside, which is controlled by Filipino guerrillas and is nominally safer. Her kind-hearted engineer father, a staunch American supporter, wants to enlist his skills in the resistance.
The next three years test not only Yvonne but everyone else around her who lose heart: her worrisome mother, who gives birth to a stillborn during the exodus from Ubec; Nida, the sexy, blustery bar owner who accompanies Yvonne's family and at one point offers her body to a Japanese soldier in order to save them all; and Doc Menez, whose seemingly limitless capacity to give is nearly twisted into madness after finding his family murdered in their beds.
Graphic though all of this sounds, Brainard's book is also quick to depict the good things just as vividly; even in the midst of war, she says, life is all of a singular, complex piece that demands embracing. So Yvonne still delights at the lushness of plants, the sound of birds and crickets, the marvelous tales of gods and maidens in the ancient "skyworld" that Laydan spins.
Nor does Brainard ever lose a sense of droll humor, keenly observant as she is of the many people around her who are bigger characters than those that people Laydan's epics. In one chapter, long-grieving Doc Menez decides to re-enact the crucifixion on Good Friday to do penance for the death of his family. After shouldering a heavy wooden cross and collapsing at his destination, he stops breathing and his audience sadly declares him dead.
But as several townswomen attend to his prone body, Yvonne relates an extraordinary turn of events: "I looked at Doc's naked body and saw that he was developing an enormous erection. As they (the women) stared at Doc's organ that had miraculously stirred to life, the women continued screaming, but they recovered and quickly threw a sheet over him before the men arrived. Doc heaved a big sigh, then he sat up calmly and said, 'I'm so hungry. Could I have some bitter melon and rice?' Doc was alive! Suddenly the air turned light and clean. . . . My soul within me expanded."
"When the Rainbow Goddess Wept" is full of moments like these. Despite the enormous political presence of the war, it is human and family history that Brainard really illuminates.
It is telling that the day the war ends, Yvonne menstruates for the first time and studies her changed body in a mirror. It is then, too, that she understands what Laydan meant when she advised her to "become the epic": it is being written on hearts and minds every day.