The Magician's Elephant

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 01/11/2010 by Leslie Wiggins.

Recommended. A simple but good story.

Could it be?" said Leo.
"Yes," said Peter. He did not look up at the ceiling. He kept his eyes on Leo Matienne. "What if?" he said to the policeman.
"Why not?" said Leo back to him. He smiled.
"Enough," said Gloria.
"No," said Leo Matienne, "not enough. Never enough. We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?"
"The world cannot be changed," said Gloria. "The world is what the world is and has forever been."
"No," said Leo Matienne softly, "I will not believe that. For here is Peter standing before us, asking us to make it something different."

This quote from The Magician's Elephant is exemplary of what I love about Kate DiCamillo's stories: along comes one character who dares to hope that the world can be different because he chooses to act. Though I've only read two stories by Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux and her newest, The Magician's Elephant, I think she is becoming one of my favorite children's authors. I appreciate her descriptive writing style and unique way of seeing the world. I especially love her ability to take an intangible theme, like love or forgiveness, and give her main character a simple way out; the difficulty lies in the character's acceptance of the simple way. Perhaps simple is the wrong word; narrow is more like it, for there is only one way to alter the circumstance so that all the characters realize the greatest happiness. And I do love a happy ending.

The odd thing is that The Magician's Elephant is bleak: the sky over Baltese is always "gray and heavy with clouds"; "the winter afternoon turned to dusk and the gray light gave way to gloom"; a single candle is lit in a dark room, casting long shadows all around; outside, dirty snow blankets the streets and muffles all sound. Several characters are quite gloomy, too. One might believe that children would not enjoy such a somber story. Light shines, however, in the hopes of interesting and endearing characters like Peter, a young boy whose sole desire is to find his believed-to-be-dead sister; Adele, who dreams of being rescued by an elephant; Leo, a tender policeman who befriends Peter; Bartok, the laughter-filled sculptor; and Tomas, the singing beggar, and his dog, Iddo.

Though it's entitled The Magician's Elephant, the washed-up magician and the elephant he procures in his most amazing (and unintentional) bit of magic ever performed, are not the main story. Instead, we join Peter in his quest to learn the truth about his missing sister. His story begins with the unexpected visit of a traveling fortuneteller. Sent to purchase a bit of dried bread, Peter decides to pay to hear his fortune. He is told that the one he seeks is alive and that the elephant will lead him to her. The only problem is that there are no elephants near Baltese. Peter loses hope until he hears the news that the old magician caused an elephant to come crashing through the ceiling of the theater.

Some readers may become bored because there is not a lot of action. But the characters themselves carry the story simply by being who they are, thinking the way they think. I enjoy the way DiCamillo develops her characters: giving hints of them along the way until the moment a proper introduction is needed. Some Amazon reviewers say that they don't like the book because of the magical elements. But I think they are being overly cautious. One must look at the way the magic is used. The Magician's Elephant is a far cry from the Harry Potter series. The magic is not a major part of the story; aside from bringing the elephant, magic doesn't really do anything. In fact, the elephant itself does not do much, if anything. Not only does the magic play a minor role, but the magician has to try to undo his magic. For all of the magician's abilities, he could not repair what was broken, he could not use magic to make the old woman forgive him, and he could not use magic to overcome his prideful impulses. Many positive elements emerge and exceed whatever negatives one may perceive due to the magic. As in The Tale of Despereaux, a message about forgiveness comes through loud and clear. A few other profound lessons emerge: listen carefully, say what you need to say while you have the opportunity to say it, and one simple decision can change someone's life. I passed it on to my ten-year-old and I look forward to hearing how she liked it.