Virginia Cantorna’s Dark on the Inside is a long overdue novel. The Philippines is an often-overlooked topic in World War II studies as well as fiction. Dark on the Inside fills that gap wonderfully, and it helps that Cantorna is herself Filipino, her parents being immigrants to Hawaii from the Philippines after World War II. Consequently, Cantorna grew up hearing stories about the war and her ethnic background makes her the perfect person to tell the compelling story of the Ugale family during the Japanese invasion.
Like most Americans, I was largely clueless about the history of the Philippines. Cantorna puts everything into context quickly for readers so they are never confused about events or the political and historical background of the novel. Many may not know that the United States basically conquered the Philippines by taking it from Spain during the Spanish-American War. While the United States promised the Filipinos their independence, instead, it held the Philippines as a colony with a continual promise of self-government until World War II. Then the Japanese invaded the island.
Dark on the Inside opens with the dramatic moment when the Japanese invade. Cantorna, however, rather than giving us a dramatic invasion scene, shows us how the war affects one family who live on another part of the island where the invasion occurs; they learn the news by word of mouth and the radio. The Ugales consist of an aging mother and father, two daughters, Liling and Glory, who are our main characters, and their two brothers, Bartolome, who is married and lives separately from the family, and Felipe “Boy”, who has gone to work in Hawaii. Liling and Glory are both well into their twenties and past the typical age of marriage. Liling has a fiancé, Raul, in the village, while Glory has a secret lover.
The chapters are told in first person by different characters, but primarily, the narrators are the sisters or the men they are in love with. The war quickly intrudes into the characters’ lives when the Ugale sisters go fishing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man Glory is in love with. A hairy Japanese soldier and his subordinate come to the river to bathe, frightening the girls, and leading to future conflict.
Conflict exists in the girls’ relationships as well, largely spurred on by the role of religion in the village. When Glory finds herself pregnant by her lover and he then disappears, she is forced to endure the shame and guilt the Catholic priest inflicts on her as she tries to raise her son alone. Meanwhile, Liling worries about her fiancé’s safety after he gets a job driving for the US Army.
Cantorna does a wonderful job of peeling back the layers of all the underlying tension in the novel. For example, the Americano doctor holds a high social standing in the community and both Liling and Glory work for him, and yet, they resent that while he is kind to them, he also seems to feel himself superior to the local “Brownies.” The Japanese, however, are far worse and commit horrific atrocities among the Filipinos, including a nighttime attack upon the Ugales’ village, which becomes known as “The Event.”
The Japanese invasion caused US General Douglas MacArthur to leave the Philippines but utter his famous words, “I shall return.” Later in the novel when he does return with troops, the Filipino characters hate the Japanese so much that one of the American-born Japanese soldiers, who works as a translator for the US Army, gets killed by Liling and Glory’s brother because he is mistaken for one of their Japanese enemies.
Throughout the novel, the various characters are deftly portrayed, and amid the horrors of war, we see moments of internal family conflict as well as tender moments, much of which surround Liling and Glory’s father, who tends to beat his wife and adult children, but then gradually becomes more tender as he develops a special relationship with Glory’s son.
Horror as well as hope for a better day pervade the story. The war destroys some of the characters; when they are not getting killed by bullets or bombs, the living nightmares they have witnessed eat away at them until they slowly lose their minds. Others, however, find in the aftermath of the war that a better life may await them if they immigrate to Hawaii.
Altogether, Dark on the Inside is a novel about strong people who have to overcome tragedy to create better lives for themselves. It is a book to put on the shelf beside modern classics like The Color Purple and The Joy Luck Club that also show people dealing with issues of war, racial prejudice, domestic violence, and ultimately, the hope that can spring from times of trauma. I am so glad that Cantorna has given the Philippines and its people their due by writing this novel and bringing alive a piece of World War II that deserves to be remembered and we can all learn from.
Plus, I am looking forward to the upcoming sequel, titled Dark on the Outside.