© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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The Magician’s Elephant

By Kate DiCamillo

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Both boys and girls, ages 10 and up for discussion of death and a rather gloomy atmosphere.

One word summary: Somber.

Kate DiCamillo is an undeniable master of children's fiction. Her wonderful, almost painfully heartfelt stories like Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane will endure as classics for centuries to come. Of her canon of stellar stories, 'The Magician's Elephant' shines a little less brightly than others.

Set in the relentlessly wintry, fictional city of Baltese, a place with a distinctly eastern European flavor, Elephant follows the story of ten-year-old Peter and his quest to find his sister. Orphaned years earlier,

Peter lives under the care of Vilna Luntz, a cold, senile war veteran who is obsessed with training Peter to follow in his militaristic footsteps. Peter was told that his father died in battle, and his mother followed soon after while giving birth to Peter's stillborn sister (boy kids in books have it rough). In spite of the fact that Peter has hazy memories of once holding a crying baby in his arms, Luntz insists that this is just a fantasy and that the child never drew breath.

But one day, Peter decides to do something dishonest. Rather than spend the money his caretaker has given him on fish at the market, Peter finds himself lured into the tent of a fortuneteller. Remarkably, the seer tells Peter that his sister is still alive, and that he will be lead to her by an elephant. While he is understandably skeptical of this revelation, particularly since the town of Baltese has never seen an Elephant, Peter can't help but feel a flicker of hope in his heart.

That night, across town at the opera house, an elephant comes crashing

through the roof, just as the magician onstage intended to pull a bouquet of lilies from thin air.

This book continues one of DiCamillo's favorite themes, that of disparate strangers coming together over an extraordinary set of circumstances, and Elephant's band of unfortunates certainly has no shortage of woes: a barren couple, a crippled sculptor, a wealthy old woman whose legs were crushed by the fallen elephant, and the elephant herself whose thoughts we are given access too. The elephant is of course terribly confused by her sudden appearance in a frozen city and goes from bewildered to homesick to suicidal as she is chained and made a spectacle for the town to gawk at.

Petty bleak stuff, obviously, but nothing exceeding the sort of material DiCamillo has already handled with tender expertise in her previous works. My criticism is less with the dour tone than the "idea driven" nature of the plot. This story is about an amazing event that changes the lives of those who are affected, more so than it is about Peter and his development, or the development of any of the characters in the story, and as a result they all read a little thin. Because of Winn Dixie had a very similar plot structure in that it involved many people in a community being drawn together by a stray dog, but as compared to Elephant, I had a much stronger grasp of Opal, Gloria Dump and Otis than I did of Peter, Leo Matienne or The Magician. Thus, when all the characters of Elephant are brought together at the end, I didn't quite feel the natural cohesiveness that DiCamillo had achieved in her previous books.

Of course, take it as a mark of faith that the only books I can compare this to are DiCamillo's other stories. Standing among the works of lesser storytellers, Elephant still towers, if standing only upon the complexity of what it achieves. Standing alone, Elephant is a fantastical story that doesn't quite capture the extent of DiCamillo's magic.

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