Book Review: The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

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Readers will remember Kate DiCamillo as the author of the adorable Tale of Despereaux, which was turned into a computer animated film in 2008 (which I had the pleasure of seeing and enjoying).  The Magician’s Elephant is a less expansive narrative, but one which attempts to reach into the heart of the human condition through the figure of the child.  It is a story which looks at the moral complications of lies, the power of loyalty, and the desire and safety found in the family unit (even if that unit is broken).

The Magician’s Elephant is about Peter Augustus Duchene, a young boy who has lost his entire family and who has been adopted by an ill and disgruntled soldier (Vilna Lutz) who wants Peter to grow up to be just like him.  But when Peter spends Vilna’s grocery money on a fortuneteller, he
learns an amazing truth:  his sister is alive and an elephant will lead the way.  A series of strange events soon follows and Peter begins to question everything, uncovering the lies about his life and his family.

DiCamillo makes me wish I had children.  The Magician’s Elephant lends itself well to parental voice acting because it has such a large cast of characters:  Peter, Vilna, Adele, the Elephant (you read that right), the Magician, Leo, and several more.  Each character, remarkably, has his or her own storyline, though some get more attention than others for obvious reasons.  The plethora of characters adds a certain charm to the story, since it allows DiCamillo to move temporarily away from the dark family-oriented narrative of Peter into the odd-ness of her world and its eccentric cast.  The novel never truly escapes from darkness, though, resting firmly in dark comedy territory.
The darkness is perhaps why I found the book so interesting.  Setting aside Peter’s orphan status, the novel is rife with trauma-induced mental illness.  Vilna is a broken soldier who still thinks he’s part of the army, crying out as if experiencing flashbacks from a war we’re never really told about.  The Magician and Madam LaVaughn have been reduced to the repetition of the same grief-stricken routine by the trauma of the Elephant’s entry into the world.  Some readers may find the darkness overwhelming, but I think the effect it has on the closure of the narrative is more powerful than would the excavation of everything but Peter’s story.  The intersection of all of these other stories and traumas makes the ending a fascinating (almost cathartic) experience (though, in all honesty, I think there were too many secondary characters, some of which weren’t given the attention they deserved).  A good deal of the trauma is also attached to an underlying didacticism in the narrative, which I found interesting not because there were messages to be found and learned in The Magician’s Elephant, but because the perspective through which these moralistic moments are derived is that of a child (Peter).  There aren’t any grand moments in which adult characters tell the young protagonist that X is wrong and that they must learn a lesson (except when DiCamillo wants to show how some of the adults are hypocrites).
As a story for kids, I think The Magician’s Elephant is a fantastic read.  While the story is dark, there are plenty of humorous moments.  The quirkiness of the plot and characters doesn’t get in the way of the story, though, which is something some chapter books fall prey to.  Instead, The Magician’s Elephant is a wonderful story about the power of family, friends, forgiveness, and compassion, with an interesting cast of characters and a strong plot.  It’s definitely something to read with your kids (if you have them) or to read on your own.
If you’d like to learn more about DiCamillo and her novels, check out her website.  The Magician’s Elephant is available pretty much everywhere books are sold.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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