Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This is the final audiobook that we actually finished on our trip. (We are working on one more - stay tuned.)

In a way, this book was a bit disappointing. Not because of its merits - it is actually a pleasant enough book, and kept us entertained. The problem is that the other two Kate DiCamillo books we have listened to were so exceptional that we were spoiled. Those two would be, of course, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses. Perhaps the problem with this one is that it didn’t have talking rodents. It’s a theory at least. 

Anyway, Peter Augustus is an orphan being raised by a half-crazy old disabled soldier, when he impulsively spends some food money on a fortune teller who tells him his little sister (who he was told is dead) is alive, and that an elephant will lead him to her. This bizarre prophecy seems impossible to believe until an incident at the opera house occurs. A struggling magician, as part of his show, manages to conjure an elephant, who falls through the roof and cripples the woman she falls on. Suddenly, there is an elephant who has appeared out of nowhere, under scandalous circumstances. The elephant becomes a reluctant celebrity, and Peter Augustus is desperate to see her, and find out how to find his lost sister.

Obviously, this book requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. Magic is assumed...sort of. Coincidence is assumed to be fate. And, naturally, things must somehow come together at the end or nothing will make sense.

Along the way, Peter Augustus meets a number of characters. There is the compassionate policeman and his wife, the magician and his victim, who nevertheless look forward to visiting at the prison where the magician is confined, the countess who makes the poor elephant into a conversation piece for her society parties, the sculptor of gargoyles who is injured and now is ground bound scooping elephant poop for a living - and laughing about the irony, the servant who remembers a dog from his youth but fails to recall her name. In typical DiCamillo fashion, these characters just are. They are not forces for good or evil, but just persons to play their part in the drama, each with his or her own hopes, fears, and dreams. I think this is an interesting technique that DiCamillo uses. I appreciate when everyone in a drama is “important” to the plot and the journey of the hero, but I also understand this method, where humanity (or rodents in other books) are interesting because they are, not because of what they mean. Perhaps it is like Dickens on a small scale, for the young reader.

The author does a fine job of tying things up, despite the feeling midway through that the various threads cannot possibly connect. It is a creative and satisfying result.

Again, it’s a charming book in its way, and worth a read. It just fails to rise to the heights of DiCamillo’s best works.

The audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, a veteran reader who has an extensive resume. I suspect we have heard her before in previous books, and she does a fine job. 

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