Novels and Elephants

“You know, Tom, I have occasionally toyed with the notion that an elephant is somewhat like a novel.”
I try to think how an elephant could possibly, in any form, resemble a novel.
“Those ears — those legs — the trunk — she is such an irrational beast! She is a collection of improbabilities!”

– Passage from Christopher Nicholson’s The Elephant Keeper

I have read many books about elephants, in my life, and three recently. Sometimes the elephants are mostly a plot device (Water for Elephants) or a symbol (The Magician’s Elephant). In Christopher Nicholson’s The Elephant Keeper, the elephants are elephants. They have every hair and wrinkle of the real thing. We learn more about them than we ever knew, and we come to love them as much as its wonderful narrator, Tom Page.

Is Tom the hero of his book, and his own life? Or is that station (to paraphrase David Copperfield) taken by the magnificent beasts he gives his life to care for in this strange and wonderful Enlightenment-era novel? However you dice the first one, the second answer is clear. Tom sacrifices everything for the elephants. He loves them, and knows all about them, and converses with them. Because he knows their moods so well, and they know his so well, the conversations don’t seem to be a contrivance or even a fabrication of his imagination.

The extent that Tom has a story, it is about of a boy — and then a man — who makes significant sacrifices for an animal he believes to be more noble than himself. Along the way he encounters amateur philosophers, scientists, and theologians who debate whether elephants have a soul, or can reason, and but Tom is resolute.

There are human dramas played out as well, and these are as compelling as the ones that made Water for Elephants such a marvelous yarn, but in this book the elephants are never out of the picture, and are always the emotional heart of the story. When the novel’s most prominent villain does dastardly things, the most horrifying thing is that he involves an elephant as an unwilling accomplice, and it is the elephant who sees that justice is done.

I’ve wanted my whole life to read a novel about elephants that can stand beside the greatest animal books — Watership Down, Where the Red Fern Grows. Now I have.

And yet, this is also a deeply philosophical novel, too, along the lines of The Life of Pi and those other rare books that really make you think and want to talk about them.

Which is to say, in case you can’t tell, that I really, really liked The Elephant Keeper.

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