Life looks bleak for 10-year-old Nitty Luce, who, after escaping Grimsgate Orphanage, steals a pouch full of strange, shimmering seeds. Things take an even stranger turn when she encounters a circus elephant about to be hanged for supposedly killing her trainer. In a moment of mutual desperation, Nitty befriends the elephant, named Magnolious, and the pair makes a bold escape.
That’s the action-packed opening of Suzanne Nelson’s tender-hearted Dust Bowl fantasy, A Tale Magnolious. The runaways are taken in by a brusque, lonely farmer named Windle Homes in the dying town of Fortune’s Bluff. Nitty also befriends Twitch, a sickly boy determined to bring down dastardly Mayor Neezer Snollygost, who wants to flatten the town and build high-rises.
In an intriguing author’s note, Nelson explains that her fantastical novel was inspired by a photograph of a circus elephant named Mary who was publicly executed in 1916 in Erwin, Tennessee, after killing her trainer. Once Nelson saw the horrific image, she dreamed of a girl running through a town square, carrying a mysterious stolen object, finding shelter between an elephant’s front legs. The tale Nelson went on to write has an old-fashioned, Dickensian feel and plenty of vocabulary flair, with names like Miz Turngiddy and words like catawampus. It’s also an allegory about empowerment when adults are intimidated by an evil politician. In Fortune’s Bluff, it’s kids to the rescue, with the help of one mighty elephant.
This is a walloping romp that delivers an important message: “Each and every one of us has a say when it comes to what is right.”