Top positive review
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A nail-biting and fabulous adventure story for children and adults
on 8 May 2013
Rachel Campbell-Johnston's new book, The Child's Elephant, is a triumphantly vivid adventure story which has many different layers. First, it's up there with the best children's adventure stories as a cracking good narrative which will keep both children and adults alike turning the pages. It opens with a great "set-piece" scene in which poachers shoot a mother elephant, leaving a baby elephant to fend for itself. The baby is found by Bat, a young herdsboy, who takes her to live with him and his brilliant grandmother. With the help of his friend, a girl Muka, and the fellow villagers, he brings up the elephant, Meya. But there is real tension because as he bonds with Meya, it becomes clear that the elephant is a wild animal who will never be domesticated. At some point, the beloved Meya will leave Bat. The suspense is ratcheted up a notch when it becomes clear that the peaceful village may well be attacked by soldiers who are snatching child to train for the military. The climatic parts of the novel is genuinely nail-biting. Will Bat and Muka survive in this terrifying world? What will happen to Meya?
As I've said, the novel has layers because while it operates as a realistic adventure story, it has many of the qualities of the best fables. The world Campbell-Johnston evokes is both specific and timeless; the scenes involving wildlife ring with authenticity, while the world of the village feels both genuine but non-specific. Countries are not mentioned. The author paints a convincing, grounded idyll in her portrait of the village, and has depicted some very nasty, believable antagonists in the form of the soldiers. The story is really about the ways in which modernity destroys life with its obsession with militaristic ways of thinking. The narrative amounts to a plea to give children back their childhoods by allowing them to play freely, to roam where they want, to interact with and learn to love the natural world, and to live the life of the imagination. Campbell-Johnston's previous book was an evocative, scholarly biography of the Romantic artist Samuel Palmer. On the surface, a completely different type of book and topic. But one can see common threads though; the magical landscapes she evokes in this novel have the luminosity of Palmer's paintings. This is particularly the case near the end of the book -- but I won't give the ending away!!
I loved this story so much I decided to buy some copies at my own expense to teach my pupils at the comprehensive where I teach.