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Book Review: From Fire to Freedom

yras book cover

By Jenibeth Loro

MOST STORIES about World War 2 have been kept in the fading memories of our grandparents. These days, history books and movies portraying realistic, and at times, gruesome suffering of Filipinos in the war years such as the case of the Nora Aunor classic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (a personal favorite) are losing influence and power over a new generation who grew up with a Westernized pop culture on TV and the internet.

Amidst changing times, there has always been a need to remind everybody that history is as important as progress in a community. And without history, a community is without a soul.

That’s why we are very lucky to have a few individuals with literary gifts who dared to immortalize their life stories in the WW2 and post-WW2 eras. One of these people is our very own, Dr. Jaime Alonso Yrastorza, who wrote his biography “From Fire to Freedom”. 

We may not be familiar with his name as he had lived in the US for more than 50 years. But in his book, one can read, a sense of belongingness that the author has for Ormoc and his family, the Alonso’s in Cebu and the Yrastorza’s in Ormoc who trace their roots to Spain.

His odyssey began in the 1930s pre-war era in the bucolic landscape of Ormoc unravished by war, pollution and the demands of globalization. No malls, no cars, no electricity and with a few families who all knew each other.

It then moves towards the telling of his growing up experiences in Manila as their family is forced to move there because of the war; his years in the US in the pursuit of education and the years after living in the US with his wife and grandchildren. Such a short summary for a very rich tale of a person’s baptism of fire in the years of war and finally, in achieving his dreams and achieving freedom!

I would like to point out certain aspects of the book that kept me turning from one page to the next.

The Defamiliarizing of the Familiar

The term “defamiliarization” was first coined by the classic Russian formalist school saying that good literature is something that defamiliarizes the familiar, makes the old new again and makes the common into something interesting and magical.

With ease of language and careful selection of words, the author has succeeded in defamiliarizing Ormoc, making it wonderful to the imagination such as these opening lines that tell the childhood of the author:

 “My childhood days, the 1930s, were spent in an idyllic tropical society. It was a village located on the western side of the island province of Leyte, named Ormoc. Even today, when approaching the town from the sea, one is greeted by a panoramic view of the community’s predominantly agricultural economic base: fields of sugar cane and coconuts as far as the eye can see. The land gradually elevates to the foot of a range of verdant mountains about ten miles distant that gives the impression of impenetrable jungle inhabited by a menagerie of tropical animals, exotic birds and reptiles. Looking seaward from atop its hill overlooks is the beautiful, crescent-shaped, fifty-mile wide Ormoc Bay with many lengthy beaches dotting its littoral loveliness…” (p. 39)

Instead of directly saying that he lives a happy life in a very peaceful community, the author, describes things beautifully, magnifying aspects of the landscape we have never seen before. Ormoc is re-invented and transliterated into the English language transforming a Bisdak community into a wonderful landscape.

This is another excerpt explaining a description of a war scene:

 “The droning sound of those planes grew loader as they approached their targets bringing an endless booming, echoing blasts of exploding bombs. They mixed with the staccato-crackle of the anti-aircraft gun replies, one of which emanated nearby. The sky was awash with puffs of smoke from exploding shells. There were live dog-fights, the defending Japanese and attacking American planes each spewing their machinegun fire…” (p 116)

Such description creates a very vivid image of the violence of war that can make a reader empathize the struggles of the author.

The Careful Weaving of Historical Events

This book can be both literary and historical. In between chapters of personal accounts, the author supplements historical readings and research to better situate readers in the writer’s milieu. Photos of important people in the country’s political scene and the author’s family, places, maps and newspaper clippings can also be found some pages.

This shows the author’s deep respect towards history and how it affects his story. It also adds to the clinical and objective tone that has been consistent all throughout the book. So, if you need some kind of review of Philippine history in the WW2 era, this book might help you.

Honest Insights 

The author’s social standing is, undeniably, not that of an average, middle class citizen who toils endlessly. In the war and post-war eras, education is never for everybody.  But because of his dad’s service to the USAFFE and his family’s status, the author was able to get a scholarship in Duluth, Minnesota and in the School of Dental Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. While in the Philippines, he spent some years in the Saint Peter’s Academy (now Saint Peter’s College) and in the San Carlos University.

Though he mentioned having several part-time jobs while in the US, he scarcely mentions financial difficulties or cases of social discrimination in his book.

Despite of everything, he did not sound imposing or authoritative as somebody who is above the common people. In his most honest, direct, sometimes innocent narratives, we are made to imagine that he is any other man who ambitioned a career and a good life, things that he had achieved.

The book’s ‘cool’ language is so infectious and resonant to my ears making me think that I should also reconnect with my grandmother and continued listening to her war and post-war experiences. Though, personally, I struggled in the historical chapters of the book thinking that they are something too male and erudite, yet, the author has been consistent in showing its purpose until the last page. And for that, I do not have the right to complain.

And with these observations, I can say, that the reading this book on a rainy, comfortable weather is such a wonderful escape from the everyday travails of living and an inspiration to read more and live more.

The book “From Fire to Freedom” is available at Amazon. Hard copies would soon be available at major bookstores in the Philippines.

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