Title: An Elephant in the Garden
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Pages: 199 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, c2010.
“There was an elephant in the garden, you see. No, honestly there was. And she like potatoes, lots of potatoes.” I think my wry smile must have betrayed me. “You still do not believe me, do you? Well, I cannot say that I blame you. I expect you and all the other nurses think I am just a dotty old bat, a bit loopy, off my rocker, as you say. It is quite true that my bits and pieces do not work so well anymore–which, I suppose, is why I am in here, isn’t it? My legs will not do what I tell them sometimes, and even my heart does not beat like it should. It skips and flutters. It makes up its own rhythm as it goes along, which makes me feel dizzy, and this is not at all convenient for me. But I can tell you for certain and for sure, that my mind is as sound as a bell, sharp as a razor. So when I say there was an elephant in the garden, there really was. There is nothing wrong with my memory, nothing at all.” (14-15)
And with that, the elderly woman named Lizzie begins her story of how, when she was a young girl during World War II, an elephant came to live in her garden. Her mother, an employee of the Dresden Zoo, brought home to care for a baby elephant named Marlene rather than have her killed out of the fear she’d get loose and cause havoc if the city was bombed. Marlene is living in Lizzie’s backyard when Dresden does get bombed, and the family is forced to flee across miles of German landscape with the elephant in tow. But how are they going to find a safe place for themselves, much less a safe place for a very conspicuous and unusual pet?
Michael Morpurgo, probably most well-known for his book War Horse that was recently made into a movie, brings to life this tale that is hailed on the cover as being inspired by a true story. Morpurgo separates fact from fiction very nicely in the author’s note at the very end, clarifying that the story originated from the Belfast Zoo, and you can find articles online about the zoo trying to identify the zookeeper in charge of that initiative. As Morpurgo further clarifies, he took some creative license in setting the story in Dresden, which also “had a zoo there too, and […] exactly the same order had gone out in that zoo, to shoot all the large animals if the bombers came” (198) That seems to have been a common solution, as this website details the same outcome for the animals in Japanese zoos, although some of them were less humanely starved to death as opposed to being shot.
The story is somewhat unique in that the narration is framed by Lizzie, as an old woman, telling the story to a young boy named Karl in the present day. It then flashes back in time, and is told in the present tense but set in the past, with occasional interruptions coming from Karl and his mother. I can’t think of many children’s stories that present an adult’s perspective, much less are narrated from it.
While there is a bombing that takes place and serves as the main instigator of the trek across country, most of the tension and suspense is internalized. It’s the absurdity of caring for an elephant as refugees, when you don’t have enough food for your human family, that really boggles readers minds, and encourages the thoughts of “Are they crazy?” This trepidation and cluelessness continues as they encounter more and more refugees on their journey that really has no ready itinerary.
I think this would also make a great movie, and the descriptions make it easy to visualize Lizzie’s brother feeding the elephant and Lizzie’s initial resentment towards the creature that is stealing so much of her mother’s attention. Bringing to life the multitude of reactions is something else Morpurgo does with realism, as not everyone is happy about the elephant moving in next door. Give this to animal fans, suckers for “based on a true story,” like me, or anyone who likes stories of insurmountable odds.