Goodreads: The Elephant Thief
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: March 27, 2018 (USA)
Danny has been making his living as a pickpocket on the streets, so when he catches the attention of the owner of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, he knows it’s the chance of a lifetime. All Mr. Jameson wants him to do is to play the part of an Indian prince reunited with his pet elephant Maharaja—and ride that elephant across the country to Belle Vue in seven days. It’s a crazy publicity stunt, and a rival zookeeper seems determined to make them miss their deadline, but Danny’s connection with Maharaja will keep him going.
Elephants are my favorite animal, so I was all about reading this historically based novel about an elephant that traveled across England. (Ok, so it’s about a boy who traveled across England with an elephant, but we all know who the real star is.) In the end, I was slightly disappointed by the overly episodic nature of the way Kerr tells the story, but I did enjoy learning about this event from history that I’d never even heard of before.
However, although this elephant journey did occur, apparently it was not *really* that exciting (or, at the time, just seeing an elephant walk by was excitement enough for people, but that doesn’t make a great book these days). Kerr thus livens up the historical source material by inventing a large number obstacles for Danny and his group to face. However, as mentioned above, this makes the narrative very episodic, and the narrative voice can’t help but keep interjecting how good times can’t last, something bad is bound to happen next, the characters knew their luck was too good to be true, etc. The result is that it feels a bit as though Kerr decided to write individual scenes answering “What random bad thing can slow down the elephant race next?” and the conceit gets a bit old after awhile.
I did enjoy reading about the characters, however (though Maharaja really is not a character in his own right, which is also disappointing). I think some modern readers will bristle at the artifice Mr. Jameson comes up with for publicity in the novel, having Danny pretend to be an Indian prince to play up the “exotic” factor of the whole affair and get people out to see the “prince” and his elephant. However, again, this story is based in historical facts, so while this would be a totally bizarre thing to do today, it definitely seems like a stunt that would have worked in the time period, and many people in England were very curious about India. Danny does reflect that it’s kind of ridiculous people believe he’s a prince in the first place.
That aside, the characters really are a good batch; Kerr plays up questions of family in addition to the elephant stunt, which highlights some of the characters’ softer sides. The main villain is somewhat flat, an “evil” rival who wants to close Mr. Jameson’s zoo and take the animals for himself, but the people who work with him are often more complex, something I like to see in the “bad guys.”
This isn’t my favorite middle novel, but it has an unusual premise, and it does raise some good questions about this period in history.