Candlewick Press, 2009
The back of The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo reads “From the author of The Tale of Despereaux comes a story about trusting the unexpected—and making the extraordinary come true.”
I like this. It could also say, From the author of The Amazing Journey of Edward Tulane comes a story of characters relying on the unexpected to see the extraordinary come true,” because the majority (if not all) the characters in the book are wounded by circumstance and have little more than what they’ve been given. There is little to expect, except for survival, if that even counts.
Our protagonist, 10 year old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene, suffers under the care of his guardian. It is just the way it is as DiCamillo is famous for her pitiless frames. (note: by pitiless, I do not mean without compassion.) Peter is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. His father bled out on a battlefield and his mother died giving birth prematurely (too, bleeding out?). The one who would be his guardian is mentally ill, traumatized by war, and his actions are abusive: starving the boy even as he would provide for him “toughening him up.” This is the way it is. Peter does not note the neglect until he begins to hope, and his hope begins with a question.
Peter questions what is true. And how does one even discern what is true, just as how can one discern what is possible or impossible? The elephant becomes an object of both logic/reason (in that she comes to exist) and dreaming/unexplainable (in that she shouldn’t exist)—in the city of Baltese.
“We must ask these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it” (143)? Leo Matienne says. The questioning opens Peter’s eyes and fills him with a vision that is beyond the improbable and he begins to hope. Like Peter, we don’t know how it is going to work out, but we are focused on this object: hope: and the only truth Peter comes to possess: the elephant will lead him to his sister.
“[Peter] stepped away from the sign and came back to it and stood considering, again, the outrageous and wonderful words. “But I must know,” he said at last” (4). Peter uses the one coin meant for food to challenge the words written with “a cramped but unapologetic hand […]: 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” (2).
Peter dares, as does the Magician, as do many of the characters who choose to suddenly do the unexpected.
“The magician knew that the words were powerful and also, given the circumstances, somewhat ill-advised. But he wanted to perform something spectacular. And he had” (26). And why? Because he “was struck suddenly, and quite forcibly, with the notion that he had wasted his life” (25).
Much of this choice appears as little choice at all, despite the courage that has inevitably been summoned. In desperate moments the impossibilities are all you have to survive on. And there is an element of desperation in the dare, and thus in the asking, there is a desperation to believe an improbable outcome and its potentially difficult consequences—change.
Despite the circumstances that the characters find themselves in, they know they are meant for something more. Peter and his sister are meant to be together (117). Leo asks Bartok Whynn, “What if you, like the elephant, were gone to the place you were meant, after all, to be” (172)? The elephant, who early in the story thinks: “She knew only one thing to be true. Where she was, was not where she should be. Where she was, was not where she belonged” (15). But as the fortuneteller warns in response to Peter’s doubts as to the veracity of her answer to his question, “That is surely the truth, at least for now. But perhaps you have not noticed; the truth is forever changing” (7).
The elephant, a truly tragic figure in the story, is not where she should be or even belonged, even as she is where she needs to be, where Peter needs her to be, in the city of Baltese.
Leo says, when protesting he and his wife’s childless circumstances and daring to question and dream regardless of her pragmatism, “Who are we to say what God intends” (84)? How can we be so confident in our interpretations of truth and possibility? The magician should not have had the words to make an elephant appear, nor should the fortuneteller have had the answer to Peter’s question, and Peter should not have had an elephant to guide him, but perhaps a more logical course. What is logical?
It is “easier to despair than hope”(51), easier to rely on what we believe we know than question what we might find in not knowing. Leo is whimsical at times, and is perhaps a bit clownish, but he is also cited as one with “the soul of a poet” (34). He sees, notices things, and questions, “What if? Why not? Could it be? Sang the glowing, wondering heart of Leo Matienne” (36).
The “glowing” of Leo’s heart (36), the “bright, so bright” face of Peter (80), and even his sister “the world was filled with light” (90). The use of light and dark, a darkness that “prevails” (37), the interminable winter both for the city and its occupants make their allegorical statements. That Vilna Lutz is “always cold” (37) despite the season is no less minor; though playing more into the anti-war sentiments of the story. Between his fevers and his lucid moments, he is depicted as not just delusional during his fevers, but deluded completely. There is little to separate his fevers from his “wellness,” calling attention to what he says when not feverish; the words become significant in that what is said is, too, a questionable truth. That Vilna Lutz would “elucidate,” or “illuminate” anything is “foolishness—a horrible, terrible, nightmarish foolishness” (98). The boy, Peter, wakes from one reality into the possibility of another: and it began with the questions that could change the world, and could change the truth—powerfully, and necessarily.
DiCamillo’s imagination is one to envy. Her characters are wonderful and she weaves them into community without apparent effort. The characters find interconnection, hopes relying upon another, as unwittingly as it may come about. This is where I return to the “God’s intentions” moment of the story. The story shows the inconsequential finding a way to become more, not only to themselves, but to the world around them. Each finds their role as an object/person of hope for another. I am still working this out, but no circumstance (at start) is desirable, nor did they come about intentionally. And do not look for redemption in the end (it would have been too probable and therefore is not possible).
What would have been an otherwise straightforward story of a central figure, the elephant, bringing hope and people together, is complicated by the tragic figure of the elephant herself. “She” is not merely an object. The elephant is given a pronoun. She has a home and family and name: “It was not a name that would make any 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 play. It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love. […] in another place entirely, she was known and loved” (94-5). Like many of the other characters, she loses her name, is taken with despair, and is need of her own guiding star (or planet). The elephant, too, is a victim of circumstance. And she, too, chooses to trust in the improbable: that a small boy will get her home.
The elephant intrigues me. Would it not have been enough to leave the elephant inanimate? Instead, we are given the elephant’s perspective, thoughts, her despair, her own gifting of hope. She is not only the focus of Peter’s deliverance, but he becomes hers. He takes on her burdens, even as he had once laid them upon her, to help him find his sister (129-131). The moment of Peter meeting the elephant is the turning point in the book. “[Peter] forgot about everything except for the terrible truth of what he saw, what he understood in the elephant’s eyes” (129).
“Longing is not always a reciprocal thing,” DiCamillo writes in chapter 7 (75). She continues and reveals the truth of this statement. In the exchange between the elephant and Peter, she reveals when Longing is reciprocated, and the actions it spurs. The reciprocation of Longing moves me. The recognition of your suffering in another’s eyes, rarely met (as we rarely look?), is powerful. Is it enough?
This recognition is captured in a poignant moment earlier between Adele and the beggar, Tomas, “Adele looked at the beggar’s face and saw that he was truly, terribly hungry” (109). “We are all hungry” her fellow orphan would say, “So what?” And “Adele could think of nothing to say in reply” (110) so she returns to her own hopes and dreams of the elephant, forgetting that a page earlier the beggar had been interchanged with the elephant. The other girl was taunting in the moment she would answer the door’s knock with “Look who is here. It is an elephant come to take you home” (109). And the beggar would sing, “Look, Adele, an elephant […] you must know that the truth is always changing.” And it does, as impossible as it might seem.
The boy’s pursuit of the elephant’s hopes over his own is extraordinary. He does not retreat to the consideration of how the elephant was to lead him to his sister, how the elephant would bring him home. Peter becomes the object of hope, and he relies on his community, the interwoven characters populating the book, to bring his goal to fruition. In the end, his hope was intertwined with that of the elephant’s. One’s deliverance depended upon the other’s; both steeped in circumstances beyond their control, but their impossible hopes thrillingly achieved. Both, in the end, would find their home.
Despite the prevailing dark, the sadness, the unending winter, DiCamillo gives the readers humor along the way, the Police Chief, the Count and Countess, Leo’s smelly feet, or Bartok’s wife. And she does end the book on an upbeat note: serenely put: “And that, after all, is how it ended. Quietly. In a world muffled by the gentle, forgiving hand of snow” (193).
DiCamillo would also reassure the reader who would need to know that though “all of it seemed too impossible to have ever happened to begin with, to have ever been true” it did happen (199). “It did happen. And some small evidence of these marvelous events remains” (200).
I think this story, more than any of her others seems to need the read aloud. I don’t think it is terribly easy, and I don’t think it is an ‘enjoyable’ read necessarily, but there are extraordinary moments that make the singular effort worth it.
Some people said they cried during their reading. I wasn’t moved that way, but I could see the potential. I was distracted. I was moved and distracted by the elephant. I kept thinking that the elephant is someone we use to provide for us, protect us in some way, someone who remains unnamed primarily; someone who is dispensable to the greater decision makers, but who haunts the rest of us mortals, those inconsequential.
At some moments I thought of the elephant as a soldier, far from home and name leading us to hopeful change while simultaneously needing our action to bring him/her home…before he/she is lost, wounded, without hope…