Nine-year-old Samantha Plum, born and raised in San Francisco, crosses the Pacific to the Philippines, land of her ancestors. On the way, she meets Solo, the magical Hawaiian, who becomes one of her mentors. In the Philippines, she finds a very different world and meets the spirit of her ancestor Lolo Ciano, brother of the national hero Jose Rizal. She and her family are threatened by the spell of a vengeful duwende and the schemes of an evil cousin. Lolo Ciano, Solo and his aumakua the tiger shark help Sammy learn who she is, so she can save herself and her family. Only if You Can Find Me is based on the life of the author’s niece who was diagnosed with autism after returning from a trip to the Philippines. A wise Chinese man said the little girl’s mind was taken by a creature of the earth who lived in the jungle.
What’s so intriguing about this book is that it appeared to be autobiographical. The names of the characters were named after the author’s relatives. One of the aunts was named Patti. In a story peopled by ancestor spirits and folklore creatures, the idea that my reality and the book’s reality might be closer than I thought was a little terrifying.
The story trod familiar ground. Patricia Laurel is the great-grand-niece of Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero. The family has its roots in San Pablo Laguna, some three hours from Metro Manila. The story is primarily set in the provincial town, where the story’s protagonist Samantha Plum encountered the vengeful duwende (Earth spirit). Along the way she visited the historical abode of the national hero, where she met a guardian spirit and traveled back in time to witness what must be the last dinner together by the Rizal family.
I live in the Philippines and I grew up on Rizal’s writing. He was a genius whose writings exposed injustices under the Spanish colonial rule. His novels were Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Subversive). It was quite a treat to encounter him as a character.
But it was not a treat for him to witness present day Manila. To see abject poverty among his countrymen was horrible for him. One of spirit ancestors exclaimed: “This is much worse than dying for your country…Are our people so blind?” I can only imagine that anguish. Today, I am afraid, the oppressors in my country are my own countrymen. Corruption in the government and lack of social conscience among the huge corporations operating in the country are big problems. People struggle with poverty. The environment suffers from people’s greed.
I was amazed that the author was able to blend all these concerns into a modern fable. I got the feeling that the entire clan of characters in the book was locked in a battle that was bigger than the ire of one earth elemental.
Find Me If You Can is very kid-friendly and would fit into a diverse reading list. Asian fantasy authors seem to bring a matter-of-fact approach to otherworldly themes. In Philippine society, for instance, the supernatural is really nothing special. It simply is part of life. Up to now, parents here would summon a mang-tatawas (traditional healer who diagnoses illnesses through incantations and candles) to help identify a child’s illness.
Don’t worry. The parents do bring their kids to medical centers. They just like to play it safe by calling on both technology and the supernatural.
According to interviews, the author wants young Filipinos in the Philippines and other countries to appreciate their cultural heritage. Despite the problems, there is still so much beauty here. I must confirm, and that I agree that it is worth fighting for.
I enjoyed the book. I liked the mixing of Hawaiian and Filipino folklore. I loved the idea of incredible beings joining forces with humans to save the Earth from being destroyed by the effects of industrialization and human apathy.
I was also sad reading it. Sammy is based on the author’s real-life beloved niece, diagnosed with autism following a visit to the Philippines. According to a manghuhula (Filipino soothsayer), a duwende possessed her. In the book, Sammy recovered from the curse. In real life, she remains locked in her own world.
“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.” —from the book review by Wanda Adams – Honolulu Advertiser
In the author’s imagination, her niece is smart and energetic, who writes her thoughts in her journal–much like the author did as a child–and that she would face many more adventures that would fill a trilogy.