Kate DiCamillo’s new work, The Magician’s Elephant, takes a little bit of warming up to early on, but the simple and sometimes poetic prose combined with the fairy tale/fable-like atmosphere and style starts to win the reader over, first charming them, then moving them. By the end, which comes quickly since it’s more novella than novel, both the prose and emotional impact have deepened and intensified, making this a novella well worth reading oneself and to one’s children.
The Magician’s Elephant opens up intriguingly enough, with a young orphan (Peter) having just spent the coin he was given to buy bread or to purchase the answer to a single question from a fortune-teller. The question might have been: is my sister, whom I’ve been told is dead by the old soldier who now cares for me, really dead? But luckily the fortune-teller spits out the answer before Peter can phrase his question. Instead, he asks how he can find his way to her. The answer is “The Magician’s Elephant.” A frustrating response in a city that has never seen an elephant, but a few days later a worn-down magician in a flash of frustrated pride, seeks to do some spectacular magic for once and accidentally conjures an elephant that falls through the opera house’s roof and crushes a lady’s legs. The magician and the elephant are both imprisoned and the tale gently unfolds of how the two come together with Peter, along with a surprisingly large cast of characters for such a slim book: the childless couple who live below Peter, the lady whose legs were crushed, her servant, a stone-carver, and a few others.
The story moves to its semi-predictable plot points as fairy tales and fables usually do — the originality lies in the steps themselves, not where the steps take you. And because this is more of a fable/fairy-tale than a full narrative, one also doesn’t look for depth of character. The characters are sketched out quickly and efficiently — as much forms of sadness as they are characters in their own right — but one is still moved by their thoughts and actions. The very simplicity of the language allows, oftentimes, for the emotion underneath to shine through more clearly in the reader’s mind, not bogged down by swirling sentences or overwrought words. Kate DiCamillo’s concision, in other words, often packs a wallop, as when she describes a crowd of spectators: “And secretly within their hearts, even though they knew it could not truly be so, they each expected that the mere sight of the elephant would somehow deliver them, would make their wishes and hopes and desires come true.” Simple words and phrasing, but such aching need is conveyed.
DiCamillo is more poetic and eloquent in her setting details, but selectively so. The city, the market, other places are barely there as places — fitting the fable style. But she’s a master of zooming into details at set moments: describing the fall of snow, for example, vividly and beautifully placing us in a uniquely lyrical moment if not a sharply-defined place. There are many such moments in the work — little prose-poems of delight.
The story can be dark and sorrowful, but this is always leavened by light — the light of hope usually (hope, in fact, I’d say is the driving force of this book and it gives nothing away to say that hope wins out in the end), but also the light of forgiveness, of self-awareness, of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow creatures (animals included).
I had only a few minor complaints. One is a somewhat cold response by characters to the lady’s legs being crushed — it was not only a bit off-putting from the characters themselves but also took me a bit out of the story as it seemed so unlikely. Another is the handling of Peter’s awakening change toward soldiering and warfare, which seemed a bit overly-simplistic (even in a simple work) and a bit forced. Finally, one could perhaps say that such a large cast in such a slim work dilutes the emotional impact of each character’s revelation or change a bit, though I didn’t feel that way.
But these are minor complaints. I confess that while I liked the very opening of The Magician’s Elephant, it then took me a few pages in to start to warm up to it. But I was soon pulled under by its spell of simple but lyrical prose and simple but enticing characters and by the end I had been deeply moved several times. It turned into a quietly magical reading experience and one I’d highly recommend. I should also mention that I think it’s fine for children to read on their own. But even better, the storytelling voice — the pace and rhythm, the simple language, the occasional authorial intrusions, the book’s brevity — all lead me to believe this would be a wonderful read-aloud book. I plan on trying it with my own seven-year-old son.
Some books marketed as children’s books strike me as fables for adults instead. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo is one of these. Clearly children will enjoy the story for itself, but it would be a shame if adults passed up the chance to read this charming book about following one’s dreams.
Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10-year-old orphan who is in the keeping of his guardian, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Lutz is training Peter to be a soldier just like him, requiring him to perform such tasks as marching in place. Lutz has told Peter that his entire family is dead, including his sister, Adele; she was stillborn, Lutz tells Peter, and his mother died in birthing her.
One day Lutz sends Peter out with a coin intended to pay for fish and bread. In the marketplace, Peter comes across the red tent of a fortuneteller, bearing a sign promising: “The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florit.” Peter cannot help but be seduced by this promise, for “[t]he audacity of the words, their dizzying promise,” are too much to resist. His decision to spend his coin on the fortuneteller is worth the lost meal that results, for he learns that his sister lives. To find her, he must follow the elephant.
What the heck? An elephant? There are no elephants in the city of Baltese. But the fortuneteller assures Peter that what she has said is the truth, and “the truth is forever changing.”
That very evening a magician “of advanced years and failing reputation” attempts to conjure a bouquet of lilies for his audience at the Bliffendorf Opera House. He intends merely to use sleight of hand to present the lilies to a noblewoman watching the performance. But something deep inside the magician yearns to work real magic, and he whispers a spell. Through the roof comes an elephant, landing squarely on the noblewoman’s lap, crippling her. The magician is jailed, and the elephant is locked in a horse stable.
How we get from here to the rescue of Peter’s sister from an orphanage — a very fine orphanage, run by kindly nuns, but an orphanage just the same — is a tale of determination, love and magic. The poetic text is accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Yoko Tanaka, who works in shades of grey and a level of detail that makes them worth gazing upon for much longer than it takes to read a page of text.
This is a sweet story that moved me several times. I listened to the audio version which was beautifully narrated by Juliet Stevenson. It annoyed me that the characters kept repeating themselves for emphasis, and that they all spoke the same way no matter what gender or social class they belonged to, but I think children will forgive this little quirk.