Only If You Can Find Me – Book Review by Allen Gaborro
In Patricia Laurel’s young adult novel, “Only If You Can Find Me,” fact and fiction come together to form a protean story of fanciful dreams and traditional folk tales. And yet, with all of its incredible fantasies and legends, no where is the book’s ability to captivate more evident than in the author’s inspiration. Laurel’s muse is her nine-year old autistic niece, Samantha. What is most mystifying about Samantha’s autism is that she was diagnosed with the disorder in the United States after taking a family vacation in the Philippines. A harmless coincidence perhaps. But according to a “manghuhula” or a Filipino soothsayer, a “duwende” or spirit possessed her while she was in the Philippines.
The Honolulu, Hawaii-based Laurel is a writer with a notable pedigree. She is the great grand-grand-niece of Dr. Jose Rizal. “Only If You Can Find Me,” which happens to be Laurel’s first novel, comes across as an exquisitely-written homage to her niece Samantha. The novel’s main character, Sammy Plum, is based on Samantha. Indeed, Laurel will acknowledge that Sammy Plum is a sort of autobiographical symbol whose story is interlaced with the author’s real life childhood.
“Only If You Can Find Me” expands deeply into the realm of the supernatural. The book spins tales about Filipino mythological figures like the part-human, part-animal “tikbalang”. There is the presence of ancestral spirits, a medicine man, a “fish girl” and other chimerical characters. Sammy ventures into this fantastical landscape when she travels to the Philippines. However, it is during a brief stopover in Hawaii where Sammy discovers that she has telepathic powers to complement the strange images pervading what are her meaningful dreams.
During her Hawaii stopover, Sammy meets an elderly man named Solo. She perceives an aura around him, an aura that only she with her unique ability can observe. Solo, who acts as a receptacle of wisdom for Sammy, reveals that there is a flip side to her Philippine journey and its original purpose of going to her family’s hometown fiesta celebrations. He tells her that the characters in her dreams are people in the Philippines that “you need to watch out for. Good or bad, you will find out when you encounter them.” Solo is also acutely aware of Sammy’s telepathic credentials. He makes sure that she understands the power she holds within her: “You are blessed with something special…Don’t resist it, go where your feelings take you.”
Philippine history is blended into Laurel’s storyline as part of her didactic effort to imbue young Filipino Americans with a sense of their cultural and historical heritage. Rather than create fictional characters that would serve as invented reflections of Philippine history, Laurel brings back to life famous personages such as Lapu Lapu, Jose Rizal, and Tandang Sora in her book. These historical figures convey the harsh reality of existence in the Philippines to the orphaned Ollie, an extrasensory partner of Sammy’s. Tandang Sora sums up that reality by remarking that “This is much worse than dying for your country…Are our people so blind?”
Laurel memorializes an obscure yet indispensable actor in Philippine history, Ciano Rizal, the brother of national hero Jose Rizal. Ciano is credited for dispatching Jose overseas for his studies and in order to disclose the abuses of the Spanish friars back home. In “Only If You Can Find Me,” Ciano’s spirit communes with Sammy. His metaphysical conversation with her touches on inescapable thoughts of fatalism and foreboding for Jose: “I know something very important is destined for my brother. I am sure it involves great sadness.” Ciano adds that “We cannot avoid our destiny…It has to play itself out as it has been ordained by history.”
Patricia Laurel’s novel is also a book of social conscience and consciousness. The author does not shy away from presenting a true picture of Philippine society. In the chapter “The Less Fortunate,” Laurel paints sullied portraits of the Philippines, portraits of life that crystallize the difficult existence of the underprivileged. She places a premium on these abysmal images for they provide an honest measure of how bad things have gotten for so many in the country: “Small children dive into the dirty water that is clotted with rotting garbage…There is no safe water, electricity and sewage…you see countless homeless people sleeping in the park, teaching their children to beg and steal.”
In “Only If You Can Find Me,” Laurel puts forth a narrative that for young FilAms, will shed light on their cultural heritage. In doing so, she imparts in her youthful audience an attitude of profound understanding and sentimental pride towards their ethnic homeland.
Only If You Can Find Me – Book Review by Wanda Adams – Honolulu Advertiser
In what some say is the first Filipino-American young-adult novel, Honolulu writer Patricia Laurel has imagined a nuanced and layered story — fiction flesh, she says, clothing bones of fact.
The book, though it is fantasy, was inspired by a sad, real-life incident: One of Laurel’s 28 nieces and nephews, a little girl named Samantha, was diagnosed with autism shortly after returning to the U.S. from a family trip to the Philippines. A healer who was called in told Laurel’s sister that the child’s mind had been stolen by a duwende, a type of earth spirit believed in the Philippines to prey upon children. “You must return and ask for her mind back,” the man said.
The real-life Samantha remains autistic, living in a world of her own. But, as happens with writers, the healer’s words lodged like a grain of sand in Laurel’s head, smoothed over like a pearl by the author’s imagination. Years later, this book is the result.
Laurel, also known as Patricia Windrow, is a former reporter whose husband, John, is an Advertiser editor. “Only If You Can Find Me” is, in a way, her tribute to Samantha, whom Laurel says is a happy, smiling child despite her remoteness. “Many times, I’ve sat and just studied her and said, ‘Sammy, what goes on in that head of yours?’ I imagined that Sam has these adventures in her head. That is my hope for her: That she is having many adventures.”
And is, possibly, like the fictional Sammy Plum, facing down dragons — or duwende.
Laurel admits she made Sammy Plum “a young Patty,” a version of herself at the happiest time of her life, between the ages of 9 and 12, when her family of mother, father and 12 children were all together. After that, because of political, social and economic conditions in the Philippines, her family began to split apart — elder children emigrating to America and Europe and some of the youngsters, like herself, sent to school abroad.
Like her character, when she was growing up in San Pablo, Laguna, the young Laurel liked to scribble in notebooks, eavesdrop on adult talk-story sessions, and tell stories herself. Like Sammy Plum, Laurel’s family owns a farm in a remote part of Quezon province, a place far removed from contemporary life — “our paradise,” Laurel calls it. And, as happens in the book, Laurel’s clan gathers annually there for a fiesta honoring farm workers and villagers, with each branch responsible in turn for planning and executing the multi-day party. She even puts her adult self in the story, as Sammy’s sympathetic Tita (“Aunt”) Pat.
It is during a family trip to the Philippines, her first, that young Sammy Plum, daughter of a San Francisco businessman and his Filipina wife, encounters evil and loses her ability to speak. But as in any correctly constructed fantasy story, the good she meets is even stronger. These include spirits of her ancestors, particularly Jose Rizal’s brother, her great-uncle Ciano; a Hawaiian kupuna she meets en route, who sends his shark ‘aumakua to intercede for her; and the gift of telepathy, which she is surprised to find that she and other family members possess.
Laurel said it was important to her to include Ciano Rizal in the book, because he played a key role in Jose Rizal’s career as a writer who encouraged Filipinos to seize their independence from the Spanish colonists. “He was the unsung hero. He sent his brother abroad and he had to stay behind and take care of the family and deal with the Spanish. He was in the background and he deserved to come out,” Laurel said.
Besides telling a pretty cool, kid-friendly story, Laurel trumpets a paean of Filipino pride: She wants young people here and in the Philippines to absorb history and culture along with following the battle with the duwende.
She wants Filipino-American children, especially, to learn more about their parents’ and grandparents’ homeland, from food and language to mythology and values. (A helpful glossary assures English speakers can follow when dialect is used.)
This is one of the most attractive aspects of the book and one to which Isle youngsters should respond: exploring the Philippines through Sammy’s eyes.
The book being released in local stores tomorrow is actually the second edition. Laurel wanted to publish “Only If You Can Find Me” in the Philippines first, and she spent months there after it was published, introducing the book to students in talks and readings. That edition also found its way into some California communities, and she has read for students there, too.
“I tell them, ‘Look, don’t be ashamed of your accent or your parents’ accent or of anything about your culture. Be proud. Look at what your families have done. … Despite the poverty, despite the corruption, despite everything that’s not going too well in the Philippines right now, they’ll get back up and you shouldn’t be ashamed, you should help out.”
This book, designed to build bridges of understanding between Filipinos, Filipino-Americans and children of other cultures, is one way that Laurel is trying to help out, too.
When 9-year-old Samantha Plum leaves on a trip across the Pacific to the Philippines, little does she know the journey of magic and danger that awaits. More than a tale of a young girl’s voyage to strange destinations, it is an exploration of family, history and the culture that binds them both.
Told in the fashion of a modern fable, Patricia Laurel’s Only If You Can Find Me succeeds admirably at mixing the folklore of the Philippines and Hawai’i with the adventures of young Sam and the diverse cast of characters. Laurel also addresses issues of ecology and environmental concerns, specifically as they apply to large parts of the considerably polluted Manila. Laurel also faces head-on the abject poverty often encountered in developing countries while exploring the way in which those who have managed to climb from it reconcile with the reality of having family who still suffer there.
Laurel manages to turn out a story that skillfully weaves heavier adult topics into the whimsical tale of Samantha’s journey to Hawai’i, the Philippines and home again, along the way encountering vengeful Spanish earth spirits, lost family curses and the ghosts of revered revolutionary heroes all while discovering the true meaning of what it is to be Filipina and the value of family.
Young adult fiction is sorely underrepresented in the local publishing scene and Laurel enters the genre bravely and successfully–I.G.
Rizal kin writes first young adult novel
By RONALD S. LIM
November 26, 2005, 8:00am/Manila Bulletin
Tikbalang. Fairies. Duwendes. Guardian spirits. Not to mention conniving relatives and an unknown past.
No, it’s not another ‘fantaserye or telefantasya’ being cooked up by the local networks, but just the bare bones of the young adult novel ‘Only If You Can Find Me ‘by Patty Laurel, who of course should not be confused with the former MTV VJ.
Patricia Laurel is the great-grand-daughter of Maria Rizal, one of Dr. Jose Rizal’s nine sisters, and she has been living abroad for 30 years now. Those years out of the country had been spent working for the European edition of the Stars and Stripes electronic newspaper and as a free lance writer for the Associated Press. However, it was after a trip from the Philippines that Laurel first had the seeds of what would later become her first novel.
“My niece had been diagnosed with autism after a trip from the Philippines,” she relates. “It was a very difficult time for the family, but what struck me the most was that two folk healers—one Chinese and the other Filipino—were saying the same thing about Samantha’s condition.”
The two, although separated by the Pacific, told Laurel that her niece’s mind had been taken by a creature of the earth that lived in the jungle.
The idea gestated in Laurel’s mind for years until she finally began work on Only If You Can Find Me, which tells the story of nine-year old Samantha Plum as she finds herself embroiled in old rivalry and schemes on her first visit to the Philippines.
Samantha and her family are on their way to the Philippines for a week-long fiesta at the ancestral home in San Pablo, Laguna. It is a journey that has her very excited—it is a chance for her to ride an airplane for the first time, and an opportunity for her to visit a different world in the form of her ancestors’ country.
But before the trip even begins Samantha already has an inkling of how much of an adventure it is going to be. Before leaving San Francisco, she has a very strange dream of a duwende on top of a mound. There are other unusual images as well: A quiet girl beading a bracelet, an old woman with a lizard on her shoulder, an old man walking along the seashore with her Tita Patti, and a girl that swims like a fish.
As her journey to the Philippines progresses she meets these motley assortment of characters one by one: The old man walking with her Tita Patti turns out to be the wise Hawaiian Solo, who warns Samantha that curious things will be happening to her on her trip, and she should take careful note on all the people she will be meeting. It is also through Solo that Samantha learns that she has the unique ability of telepathy, or “mind talk.”
The quiet girl beading bracelets turns up as an orphaned kid named Ollie, about to be adopted by one of Samantha’s aunts. Both Samantha and Ollie share the ability to “mind talk,” and this immediate bond proves useful to both as the story progresses and they are out into much more dangerous situations.
The old woman and the girl who swims like a fish are Nanay Gustia the arbularyo and her granddaughter Eva. Nanay Gustia knows the secret as to why Samantha is important to the duwende on the mound, while Eva plays a vital role in unraveling the secret to the illness that descends upon Samantha as soon as she leaves the Philippines.
The book takes its time in the first few chapters as Laurel establishes her heroine’s character, as well as using Samantha’s cousin as a springboard to impart a little insight into the Filipino-American kids way of thinking. One scene, for instance, has Samantha’s cousin make fun of a Filipino waiter in San Francisco. The waiter constantly mispronounces the word menu as minu, and when Samantha’s cousin Victoria laughs at him, she is immediately reprimanded.
This was an aspect of the book that Laurel wanted very much to include.
“I wanted this book to also be a way for Filipino-American kids to know about their heritage,” she says. “It’s a way for them to get in touch with their roots.”
But it is really when Samantha finally arrives in Laguna that the book picks up steam, beginning with Laurel’s own enchanting version of Jose Rizal’s last day in the company of his family before being exiled to Dapitan. The scene is short but loaded with imagery, and even if it is fictionalized, gives the reader a very intimate look on what may have happened during that last meal.
“I’d like to think that that was what actually happened!” says Laurel with a laugh. “It’s a good thing that they’re my ancestors, because I have license to use them. It nourishes the imagination.”
From there it is one perfectly-spaced revelation after another, interspersed with scenes of local color. We soon find out that an evil cousin named Jenny plans to sell the family land to an electric company, and that the vengeful duwende that haunts Samantha’s dreams had intially gone after her mother Yvonne during the 70s and the start of Martial Law.
With the help of Nanay Gustia the duwende is momentarily contained, until Jenny’s conniving frees him once again and allows him to steal Samantha’s voice and abduct Ollie and hide her within a rock. It is only through the combined forces of Nanay Gustia, Solo, and the spirit of Paciano Rizal, that the family manages to pull through.
What is notable about Only If You Can Find Me is that even as it shows the quaint and beautiful side of the Philippines through the scenes of farm life and the various folk tales about tikbalangs, fairies and merpeople, it never flinches from discussing the less-than-savory aspects of living in the Philippines as well.
Laurel squeezes in her concerns about the environment in the Philippines as she has her characters traverse Manila in the earlier part of her novel. The Payatas tragedy is even given a mention, and Laurel delivers in one succint piece of dialogue how much apathy has crawled into the Filipino psyche when she has a driver say this about the appalling conditions in Manila: “Ma’am, we see it every day. We have gotten used to it.”
It is certainly encouraging to see that Laurel’s time out of the country has not given her view of the country a rose-colored tint.
If there is any flaw at all to Only If You Can Find Me is that Laurel’s training as a journalist sometimes seeps a bit too much through the pages. That in itself is not a bad thing—her prose is direct to the point and easy to understand, ideal for any young adult novel. Sometimes, though, it feels as if one is reading a news report rather than an exciting adventure.
But that minor quibble is generally overshadowed by the general craftsmanship of the book. In Samantha’s dream sequences and in Nanay Gustia’s first confrontation with the duwende during the 70s, Laurel proves that she’s as capable in writing scenes of excitement and magic as she is in writing for the papers.
Two sequels for Only If You Can Find Me are already in the works.
“The second book, The Mandarin Mannequins of Chinatown, will take place in Binondo Chinatown and Honolulu Chinatown,” says Laurel. “The Wiesbaden Wizard is going to be the third book, and will take place in the German town of Wiesbaden, and rock and roll will save the day. I’m writing the second book right now.”
Podcast with Patricia Laurel, author of youth book “Only If You Can Find Me”
A review of Patricia Laurel’s “Only If You Can Find Me,” the story of a young Filipino American girl who discovers her cultural heritage, runs in the Book section of the Sunday Chronicle.
You can also hear an interview with Laurel – the great-grandniece of Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal – in the Dec. 26 edition of The Chronicle’s Pinoy Pod podcast with Michelle Louie, who wrote the review.
The book is the tale of a young Filipino American girl named Samantha Plum, who lives in San Francisco.
When Sammy travels to the Philippines for the first time for her family’s town fiesta, she encounters the spirits of her ancestors and learns she has inherited her family’s psychic abilities.
In this phone interview from her home in Hawaii, Laurel talks about why she wrote the book to reach out to Filipino American youth and help them appreciate their roots. She also hints at what’s coming next in part two of the trilogy.