BOOK REVIEW: An Ode to Sunshine

Author: Melchor M. Morante
Published by: Alitheia Publications, Davao City, 2022

Life stories are often the stuff that remarkable novels are made of. It only takes the keen sense of a documenter and the romantic lens of an animated storyteller to facilitate its birthing.

Melchor Morante’s latest novel entitled “And She Sang…You are my Sunshine” is one such work.

It tells of the story of young Josefina or “Pining” who is plucked from her impoverished beginnings in rural Pangasinan to be raised as a proper lady by her well-meaning but domineering spinster grandmother in pre-war (WW2) Tondo, Manila. An artist with a beautiful voice, Pining soon gets tapped as lead actor in a parish zarzuela and catches the fancy of Daniel, a charming law student and labor organizer. The two fall in love against the iron will of her grandmother and are forced to elope to Davao City, in the then very far island of Mindanao.

Barely out of her teens but well-equipped to be the total housewife, Pining finds herself mostly left on her own in the Mindanao highlands where Daniel continued his work as underground labor movement organizer within pioneering logging companies. In a couple of years, WW2 breaks out and Daniel joins the guerrilla movement to fight the Japanese. In one of the encounters, Daniel gets killed, leaving young Pining a widow, childless and desolate in this still strange land.

Pining joins friends and neighbors as they move along from one place to another in the still forested areas in the suburbs of Davao City to avoid the Japanese. Love blossoms anew for the young widow as she learns to share life and a genuine love for songs with Miguel, an acquaintance of Daniel from the logging concessions. Toward the end of the war, the two marry and begin to raise a family.

As wife and mother, Pining transforms from shy, naive girl into a remarkably strong and empathetic woman. Against a brewing animosity among the Lumads, the Moro peoples and the settlers from the other islands of the country, Pining cultivates lasting friendships with Indigenous, Muslim and migrant women, her exemplary culinary skills paving her way into their hearts.

Pining and Miguel would raise their five children to be strong-willed, independent, resourceful, but most of all, compassionate personalities. At her deathbed, which is actually where the book begins, Pining requests Kaloy, her eldest son who by now, is a religious brother, to help quell the final stirrings of her heart.

Reading this book feels like having a warm cup of coffee while listening to a storyteller weave his near-magical account of his mother’s charmed life. Morante’s syntax in this maiden novel in English is authentic—perhaps dated from the viewpoint of millennials, but nuanced and characteristic of that age when English felt closer to Filipino sentimentality.

The prose is written from two personas—Pining who accounts for life in old Tondo until the early years in Mindanao with equal thrill, self-doubt, and surrender; and Kaloy (as main storyteller), whose social-realist narratives ring similar to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez account of growing up in (fictional) Aracataca in Colombia and pretty much paint a cinematic image of life in both Digos and Davao City then and later on.

A series of paradoxes keep the story running—liberating love in stifling and archaic Manila, a sense of security in precarious Mindanao, the search for peace amidst a raging war, moving on by holding back. Morante has a penchant for finding the dramatic and the romantic in any situation. His detailed account of unfolding events is ironically most factual in this fictional work and showcases his well-honed skill in documentation.

If anything, however, Morante’s “…Sunshine” celebrates every person’s story—particularly a Mindanawon’s story—of finding one’s groove in life—and every Filipino woman’s courage, creativity and compassion to see such a life through to the end. Grab a copy and a coffee and get your fill of “..Sunshine.”

[Des Mendoza Lopez is a freelance writer, researcher, editor, and translator. She has worked many years as writer and documenter for disaster-risk reduction and related agencies such as CARE Nederlands-ACCORD Philippines, DOST-PHIVOLCS and Plan International. She has also worked on print projects with the Institute for Spirituality in Asia (ISA) and Terre Des Hommes (Thailand), and as print and media consultant for the Redemptorists (CSsR) and the Children’s Development and Intervention Center (CDIC).]