The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
Published by Candlewick Press on 2011
Genres: Animals, Elephants, Family, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Orphans & Foster Homes, Siblings
I’m ringing in the New Year with an extended review of one of my favorite novels from 2009.
Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 book, The Magician’s Elephant, opens with ten year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene who is desperate to know whether his younger sister is alive. He stumbles upon a fortuneteller at a circus, and spends his one florit to ask the woman about his sister; she explains that an elephant will lead the way. And what would you do if the answer to your most important question was “You must follow the elephant…She will lead you there”?
The book opens with a major event—the asking of a question whose answer will surely change the life of Peter, the orphaned protagonist. There is a point at which Peter shrinks back from his decision, and reflects, “What if, after all this time, he could not bear the truth? What if he did not really want to know?” Surely some readers understand how Peter agonizes over the possibility of knowing a truth that might be too much for him to bear. Knowing the truth is not always as simple as it seems; with the truth comes responsibility, and sometimes pain. For certainly, there are times when knowing the truth is necessary, and yet the space between not knowing and knowing involves a fear one must press through.
For Peter, the revelation about his sister catapults him into a reality in which he must find her. And so the story truly begins and we, the reader, gladly follow Peter throughout the narrative as he searches for the elephant, who in fact, has crashed through the roof of the concert hall, and is very much alive and well. DiCamillo has situated the reader in a multi-layered and complex landscape—to find his sister, Peter has to follow the elephant, but how and when will this happen?
The fortuneteller also states that “the truth is forever changing.” And what does this mean? The truth, it seems, is that if Peter finds the elephant, he will find his sister. But when he finally sees the elephant, the truth does change. Peter recognizes that the elephant is heartbroken, imprisoned far away from the familiarity of her home. Rather than insist on discovering the truth of his sister’s whereabouts, Peter responds to “the terrible truth of what he saw, what he understood in the elephant’s eyes. She was heartbroken. She must go home.” Peter now devotes all of his energy to connecting and orchestrating the necessary people so that the elephant can be transported back. For him, it appears, the truth of what he must do has changed.
And yet it hasn’t. For in his decision to help the elephant, Peter inadvertently sets into motion the journey that will deliver his sister to him through a unique and surprising chain of events and people. Essentially, the people and the animals in the book are the ones we love—and it is the miracle of the elephant that brings these flawed and lovely characters together. It is Peter and Adele and Sister Marie and Bartok Whynn and Hans Ickmann and Madam LaVaughn and Leo & Gloria Matienne and the magician and Vilna Lutz and Tomas and Iddo. They are the ones we cherish by the end of the book—they are the ones who give readers a little more insight into this journey we call life, and the importance of keeping our eyes open so that we see those that are perhaps rarely seen. The Magician’s Elephant suggests that our senses can be sharpened as we read children’s literature. Our sensitivity towards people can grow.
What Peter’s predicament illustrates is that the answer to the major questions we ask may not always be as neat and straightforward as we would hope. We may have to follow an elephant, an impossible scenario. And, though we feel blind and absolutely incapable of finishing the journey, following the elephant does, in fact, lead to the treasure. And perhaps, like Peter’s quest, the journey works to reveal the treasure along the way, for people are the treasure. In DiCamillo’s text and through Yoko Tanaka’s atmospheric acrylic illustrations, we meet the beggar Tomas with the beautiful voice, and his dog, Iddo, who longs “to deliver, just once more, a message of great importance.” We want Iddo to make that significant announcement. And he certainly does on page 175: “Something incredible was approaching. He knew it, absolutely, to be true. Something wonderful was going to happen, and he would be the one to announce it. He worked with the whole of his heart to deliver the message.”
Our hearts long for reconciliation between the magician and Madam LaVaughn who is crippled because of a magic trick. These characters deliver the message that forgiveness is the key to freedom—as soon as Madam LaVaughn releases the magician from prison, explaining that she won’t press charges anymore, she “felt some great weight suddenly flap its wings and break free of her. She laughed aloud.” Often we do not realize the power of forgiving those who hurt us—who even cripple us. This is yet one of the amazing truths DiCamillo unfolds on the landscape of this fantastic story.
Readers wish for Hans Ickmann to be happy again, as he was when young, with his brothers and their little white dog, Rose—“a dog who was famous for being able to leap across the river that ran through the woods beyond the town.” It is Hans, in fact, who helps Peter and his entourage gain access to Madam LaVaughn during a pivotal point in the story. Though at first he hesitates as they stand at the door, requesting to see the woman, in the next moment, he recalls the name of the little white dog he had loved so much as a child. And then, “He felt a wonderful certainty. The impossible, he thought, the impossible is about to happen again.”
The impossible is what we need to happen. And happen it does within the pages of DiCamillo’s text—but the deep truth of the novel is that the impossible can happen in our own world, in the reader’s world. Like Leo Matienne, we must ask the three questions: “What if? Why not? Could it be?” And we must ask them regularly.
The Magician’s Elephant beautifully illuminates the power of relationships and connections with other people and suggests that such links are necessary and vital within people’s lives, especially in the context of finding what is lost. DiCamillo’s text highlights several spiritual dimensions, and strongly speaks to readers’ spirits so that by the end, we may feel a little more hope, a little more wonder, and a little more awe at the fact that an elephant can appear when we need her, and then disappear even as our hearts are blanketed with astonishment.