I have read DiCamillo’s story “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” previously and really liked it. When I saw she had written another book I was really excited to read it. This is a fabulous book; but touches on more adult topics than her other books.
Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10 year old boy who has lost his father to war, his mother to childbirth, and his sister at birth. He lives with a military friend of his father’s. The problem is that Peter remembers hearing his sister cry and is convinced that she isn’t dead. A fortuneteller tells his that he will find his sister if he follows the elephant; but he can’t figure out what she means as there are no elephants in Peter’s life. Then a magician tries to perform a feat of magic that goes horribly wrong. Peter needs to figure out how the lonely elephant will help him find his sister. The elephant needs to get home, but before that it will open the eyes of the citizens of Peter’s city to the fact that wondrous things can happen.
This was a wonderful book. The characters are engaging and colorful, the writing wonderful. Like DiCamillo’s other works the writing style follows classic fairy tale-type prose and results in a darkly atmospheric setting. The story is interspersed with wonderful illustrations by Yojo Tanaka, that fit the mood of the story perfectly.
The book itself is pretty small, at most a couple hours of reading. It seems like it would be a good book to read to children as it starts. As I continued to read it though I think many of the adult characters’ pondering and some sensitive topics might make this more suited to the young adult (or older) crowd. At one point the elephant contemplates suicide and Peter’s caretaker is occasionally quite cruel. Much of the story centers around characters outside of Peter himself and these characters spend a lot of time contemplating how the wonder of an elephant appearing in the city changes their perception of their lives, because if that can happen anything can happen. I think these contemplations will be lost on a younger child and they may find the book to be very slow moving and boring at parts.
I personally found these contemplations to be fascinating and thought-provoking. This is the kind of book that sounds very good when read out-loud and is very lyrical. The story itself is hopeful as well as thoughtful; although the overall atmosphere is very dark and dreary. I thought it was just a superb story. I look forward to reading DiCamillo’s future works and will keep an eye out for her future publications.