Oct 22, 2013

The Elephant Keeper

by Christopher Nicholson

Set in the 1700's, this is the story of a stableboy who works for a wealthy man. In an odd turn of circumstance, he becomes an elephant keeper, a role which ends up consuming his entire life. One day he runs to the ship docks to see cargo unloaded from far away, including a few exotic animals (most already dead or near to it) and two young elephants, which his master purchases for their novelty. Our boy Tom cares for the elephants tenderly and learns through trial and error to train them to simple commands, and constantly wonders at their intelligence and gentleness. Until the male elephant reaches maturity and becomes irritable and violent during the mating time. No one really knows how to control him, plus it is getting expensive to keep them both so the elephants are separated, the male sold and Tom continues to care for the female, even as she passes from one owner to another. Finally they leave the countryside and eventually up in the busy, dank city of London, part of a dull menagerie on public display. Tom despairs of their situation but continues to pay close attention to the elephant's needs, until he feels so close to her he imagines he can hear her speak (at least, my impression was that he imagined it!)

I found this a very interesting story, and the most convincing thing to me was the time setting. The awkward spelling and quaint turns of phrase, as well as descriptions of how people lived seemed to place it solidly in a previous century. I was rather appalled at the ignorance of most people, their cures for sick animals usually involved shoving disgusting concoctions down their throats or bleeding them. Most of the captive wild animals Tom encounters, in private collections or on display in the city's menagerie (lion, giraffe, monkey of some kind, etc) are in sorry condition and suffering. The descriptions of some of their treatment reminded me of Black Beauty.

There are a lot of unpleasant characters here, who try to harm the elephant, teasing her (and Tom as well), or just bullying them and using Tom and the elephant for their own ends. When Tom tries to stand up to bad treatment and misuse, he doesn't come off very well. He starts to withdraw from other people, finding the elephant his closest companion. Her character was drawn very well, and she felt more real to me as an animal character than the elephant in, say, Modoc. I was afraid at one point that Tom's affections for the elephant were going too far, and the book was going to veer into unforgivable territory like The Giraffe, but it didn't. The final chapter, which leaps into the future, was a bit strange and didn't really add credibility to the story for me, although that's what I felt it was probably supposed to do.

It had some interesting themes that I only started to pick up on later in the story, such as how do our expectations of what people will be, color the real impressions we have of them? how does our treatment of others shape our own character, and the comparison of the elephant's calm nature with the often violent and deceitful people around her was well done.

Rating: 3/5     298 pages, 2009

more opinions:
A.V. Club
Travel with Intent
Musings of a Book Slut


bermudaonion said...

This book sounds interesting except for that odd last chapter.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Sounds interesting and strange! I am mildly obsessed with elephants so it sounds like something I would enjoy. They are so large and clever and enormous. I love them.

Jeane said...

Bermudaonion- well, you can always skip it!

Jenny- I think I'm in a elephant-book spate, now. I found another one on my shelf (Gerald Durrell!) and requested two from the library that have been on my TBR for ages!

Peter S. said...

Oh, this book really reminds me of Jose Saramago's The Elephant's Journey! Of course, there's the elephants. But other than that, elephants and humans go on a journey/adventure!

Jeane said...

Peter- I'll have to look for that one, too!