Lowland Tibet is the exotic setting for this coming-of-age story featuring an 11-year-old boy and the elephants he loves.
What Elephants Know by Erick Dinerstein. Disney Hyperion, 2016, 268 pages
Reading Level: Middle Grade, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-14
Nandu Sindh was only a baby when he was found by Devi Kali and the respected elephant trainer known as Subba-Sahib. They become the boy’s mother and father respectively, even though Devi Kali is an elephant. No boy had more loving parents, but at age 11 his life begins to change, due to a single transgressive act during the King’s annual tiger hunt. The following chain of events leads to an order to shut down the elephant preserve where Nandu has lived his whole life. The boy has to grow up fast in the year covered by this story: beginning his formal education at boarding school, thwarting the notorious Maroons (bandits), suffering a great loss, and conceiving an ambitious plan to breathe new life and purpose into the elephant preserve.
This is not a tightly woven narrative but a ramble through one pivotal year. Characters move in and out of the story, plot developments resolve too quickly or don’t resolve at all. Rather than relentlessly building tension the story meanders like an elephant through the jungle, dragging events in its wake. But that’s not a bad structure for a coming-of-age tale set in an exotic location.
Nepal is a place of swirling religious traditions—animist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—even a Jesuit priest who teaches at Nandu’s school but ends up learning almost as much from his student. Father Autry, a naturalist, doesn’t appear to hold any particular Christian views and credits evolution for the natural wonders around him: “The creatures illustrated within [this book] are of a most exquisite design. God himself could not improve on their appearance.” (Even though “God himself” designed them in the first place?) Readers may also be put off by characters praying to the local gods, or even to the elephants themselves. “Nandu” [my father] said, “you must always first touch the elephant’s skin, then touch your fingers to your forehead. It is a gesture of respect to a god humble enough to be your servant.” Of course, there really is a God humble enough to be a servant, and a careful reader can gain greater appreciation of his work through books like this.
Caution: Worldview (animist, Hindu, and Buddhist—though Nandu explicitly rejects the fatalism of those traditions), Language (occasional vulgarity, i.e., fart, turd, elephant’s ass)
Overall Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)