Summer is in full swing, and that means it’s time for me to read some middle grade novels–either out loud to my kids or silently to myself because, you know, an excellent middle grade novel transcends categories and is a delight for any age. Kate DiCamillo is a perennial favorite of mine, and The Magician’s Elephant thrums with all the themes I love so much in her work.
Living in a freezing garret with a disabled soldier who knew his late father, Peter Augustus Duchene spends his young life wondering what happened to the baby sister he remembers being born, the baby sister named Adele. He finds a fortuneteller who claims that his sister is alive. To find her, he must “follow the elephant.” But the city of Baltese has no elephants. Is his quest hopeless?
In a strange turn of events, a magician in that very town conjures the most tremendous spell of his life, and instead of lilies falling down from the ceiling of the auditorium, an elephant comes crashing through instead. The town of Baltese become enamored with the rarity that has appeared, and Countess Quintet makes a display of the elephant in her ballroom. With the help of a kind policeman named Leo Matienne, Peter visits the homesick elephant and finds the answers that he seeks.
This short little pearl of a story touches on the great themes of being loved, being known, and belonging to someone. The elephant herself, trapped in the countess’ ballroom, expresses this well: “She should have been sleeping, but she was awake. The elephant was saying her name to herself. It was not a name that would make sense to humans. It was an elephant name — a name that her brothers and sisters knew her by, a name that they spoke to her in laughter and in play. It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love. Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved.”
Names are important, and it is knowing Adele’s name that brings Peter to his sister at last. As is typical for DiCamillo, the orphans in the story find a family where they least expect it. Like the elephant, Peter and his sister come to the place of being known and loved, the place of belonging.
Even the magician, who is proud of nothing so much as the great magic which he has worked, realizes in the end that there is something far more important than his accomplishment. “The magician stood very still. He stared at the falling snow. And suddenly, he did not care at all that he would have to undo the greatest thing he had ever done. He had been so lonely, so desperately, hopelessly lonely for so long. He might very well spend the rest of his life in prison, alone. And he understood that what he wanted now was something much simpler, much more complicated than the magic he had performed. What he wanted was to turn to somebody and take hold of their hand and look up with them and marvel at the snow falling from the sky. ‘This,’ he wanted to say to someone he loved and who loved him in return. ‘This.’ ”
If you have elementary-aged children at home, I heartily recommend Kate DiCamillo’s fanciful story, The Magician’s Elephant. And if you don’t have elementary-aged children at home, I recommend it just as heartily. Known and loved — that’s what we all want. And being able to share this book with my nine-year-old made it all the more special this summer — to turn to someone, take hold of their hand, and say, “This.”