At first glance, the intriguing title and cover illustration will pique readers’ curiosity about the eponymous pachyderm of The Magician’s Elephant. Once inside, however, that intrigue builds immediately, as Kate DiCamillo—in her eloquent, yet understated, prose—unveils the book’s suspense-filled theme. From page one, readers are transported to the market square in Baltese, some 200 years ago. There they follow 10-year-old Peter Augustus Duchene, a poor orphan who spends his last coin on a fortune teller, seeking the answer to one question—whatever became of his long-thought-dead sister?
The fortune teller reveals that his sister is alive and advises Peter, in enigmatic soothsayer fashion, to “follow the elephant” to find out more. The puzzled boy begins his quest to unravel the fortune teller’s meaning.
When a magician’s trick goes awry, an elephant is sent crashing through the roof of an opera house, disabling a town noblewoman. This spectacular event proves fortuitous for Peter and the rest of the town, who become inexplicably drawn to the elephant—a vessel, of sorts, through which they channel their hopes, dreams and wishes. Soon, a chain of events—some mundane, some amazing—results in a simple but impeccably well-told tale about belief, wonder and making the extraordinary come true.
Newbery Award winner DiCamillo has long been a word virtuoso, and this novel solidifies that role. Everything about this story is masterful. The prose is remarkably simple, with underpinnings of delicious dry humor. Yoko Tanaka’s illustrations have a soft Chris Van Allsburg-esque quality, which lend atmosphere to the tale.
The Magician’s Elephant is a well-paced fable about following the ever-elusive truth— a truth that is “forever changing,” as the beggar in the book observes. At its most ambitious, it’s also a haunting analogy of belonging—whether man or beast, rich or poor, beggar or countess, we all just want to be home, to be loved, to belong.
Former children’s librarian Sharon Verbeten is right at home with a husband and toddler, but no mysterious elephants, in De Pere, Wisconsin.