Goodreads: An Elephant in the Garden
It’s WWII and Lizzie and Karli’s father is off fighting while their mother tries to take care of not only them but also the animals in the zoo she works at. Then comes the news that if Dresden is bombed, the large animals will have to be shot for the safety of the citizens. But their mother has raised the elephant Marlene from birth and convinces the zoo director that she can care for Marlene in her own garden. But when the bombs come, how can the family find refuge with an elephant in tow?
I picked up An Elephant in the Garden skeptically, remembering how War Horse had fallen short of my expectations,. The book had lacked the complexity of the film and I feared this book, too, would be too simple for my liking. However, even though the book is clearly written for a younger audience, I still found it charming. Having a book that’s easy to read and predictable in its outcome is not always a bad thing.
Some authors can write for children with much of the same nuance and complexity they give adults; Morpurgo is not this author. He writes historical fiction, often set in WWII, yet seems to shy away from the true horrors of war. Here the narrator, Lizzie, mentions being hungry and tired as a refugee. She describes watching her city burn, bombed by the Allies. And yet none of it really hurts. It’s all too far away now, an exhibit in a museum and not the story of a real, aching heart. The framing device, of course, helps with this–Morpurgo makes an older Lizzie tell her story to a nursing home worker and her son–thus young readers can always be assured that everything is all right now, everything turned out okay. Older Lizzie is here to drink her water dutifully under the nurse’s eye to remind us that she lived.
The story itself is a rather simple arc. The children watch their father go to war, watch their mother try to make ends meet. They meet the elephant then must flee when Dresden goes up in flames. Of course other predictable events happen (spoilers till the end of the paragraph!) like meeting a handsome young Allied soldier. Everyone who’s read any historical fiction will know he’s about to become a love interest, despite the fact that it’s easy to forget, from the way she acts, that Lizzie is sixteen and not ten. Other predictable events occur, none of it too traumatic, all things considered, since a war is going on. You’d think someone would be gravely injured or even die. You’d be wrong, because this is a children’s book and we can’t upset anyone.
Ultimately, it does seem a little strange to write a book about WWII for children if you seem to think children can’t handle the horrors of WWII. If I ignore the background setting, however, and focus on the story of Marlene, I find the book quite charming. I guess it’s difficult to write a bad book when an elephant is the star!