Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

A preposterous fortune creates a sequence of unlikely events which culminate in a happy ever after. A fairy tale like story of the transformative power of love and hope and forgiveness.

I must admit, I was not as impressed as others (and by others I mean every blog review I’ve read sans one) were on the first read-through. I liked it overall, but felt a little dissatisfied, a little let down (hype is hard to live up to after all), but upon picking it up and reading it straight through a second time I began to see things that I hadn’t before. The deceptively simple narrative structure, the rhythm of the story, and possible allusions to historical events began to pop out at me. No longer was this simply a story of hope and love and magic, but a story where deeper truths are hidden just below the surface.

And this is where I have a confession. I need this story to be more than a fairy tale taken at face value. If I'm to take it as a story of a boy caught up in a magical story - this story doesn't quite work for me. Yes the language is beautiful, yes the atmosphere is so real I felt cold reading it, yes I agree that this is a spectacularly written book. And yet. And yet, I need for there to be a deeper meaning. For me to be swept away in the adoration of this book I need it to be a fable a la Animal Farm.

On my second reading I started seeing these deeper meanings. I wrote up a whole bunch of notes with quotes that I thought backed up my point. What first got me thinking was how this really felt like a piece of Jewish literature, the way in which the characters speak, the darkness, the dark humor, the terrible beauty of it all. The setting – doesn’t this feel like Poland or the Ukraine? Why did the author choose an elephant - did she choose it deliberately as a reference to the "elephant in the room?" What if this was really a commentary on the holocaust? And then I shared my thoughts with a couple of colleagues and realized I had lost my ever loving mind.

I can see why people love this book. I am even half in love with it. Ultimately though, It won't get my vote in our Mock Newbery because I think it's a story about a boy and magic and an elephant that needs to go home and that's just not enough for me.

Book Source: Library Copy


Bibliovore said...

I just finished this yesterday and I'm still chewing on it. I can't quite wrap my head around what it's supposed to be or say, other than "Family and belonging is good and truth is mutable." It felt kind of spiderwebby, very fine and delicate. Of course, you could extend that metaphor and say it could stop a bullet. But now we're getting confusing.

I did go, "Oh yeah!" when you pointed out the Eastern European feel of it.

Patti said...

"spiderwebby" is a good way to describe it. I can definitely see why everyone's being going crazy for it. Sigh. At least I can enjoy the When You Reach Me hype. :)