I don’t remember how I came to read Tale of Despereaux, but when I did I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s writing. She plays with words, rolls them around on her tongue, writes for the sound. Not all authors have this gift. I then had the chance to meet her at a young author’s event and she was as lovely in person as she was on the page. Her passion for language is evident in her speech as well as her prose. Kate DiCamillo is an easy sell for me and I have had a few of her books on my wish list for awhile, including The Magician’s Elephant.
I am not a reader who begins at the end. I am old-fashioned and like the sense of peeling back the story from page one to page last. For this entry, however, I will start with after-the-end–the acknowledgements, which begin “These people walked with me through a long winter’s night.” This is a tale about depression and hope and rediscovering the magic of “what if.”
Young Peter lives two centuries before now with an old soldier, Vilna Lutz, who was a friend of his father’s and who delivered the news of his father’s death that sent his mother into labor, which led to her death and Peter’s and his sister’s being an orphan. Lutz sends Peter to the market for bread, but Peter chooses instead to buy an answer from a fortune teller, who says an elephant will lead him to his sister, whom Lutz had told him was stillborn. That night a magician, trying to bring lilies through the ceiling of the opera house to the lap of a noble woman, conjures an elephant, which cripples the woman and shatters the ceiling atop the audience.
The magician is imprisoned, the elephant ends up in the ballroom of a superficial noble woman, and Peter becomes desperate to see the elephant. In an orphanage, a young girl dreams of an elephant coming to take her home and a beggar begins to see all of their dreams. A childless police lieutenant and his wife help Peter to see the elephant and Peter realizes it’s the elephant who needs help, the elephant who is desperate and lonely and will die unless she is returned home. He sets aside his own needs and works to save the elephant and, in that process, manages to save himself, his sister, the lieutenant and his wife, the magicians, the crippled noble woman, the beggar and his dog, and the elephant’s caretaker. Peter brings light by caring for others. He asks “what if,” but, as a child, his asking must be supported by an adult, so the police lieutenant’s willingness to also ask is crucial.
Because DiCamillo loves language, many passages are achingly written, such as this one. Earlier DiCamillo writes that the townspeople all longed to see the elephant, whom they believed would answer their wishes, their questions, their needs, but that longing is not always reciprocal. “The elephant was saying her name to herself. It was not a name that would make any sense to humans. It was an elephant name–a name that her brothers and sisters knew her by, a name they spoke to her in laughter and in play. It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love. Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved.”
How many around the world repeat their name for these same reasons?
DiCamillo does bring us back from this dark place and ends with a vision of the way all of us are connected in our search for light, and with a promise that the truth of “what if” can be found, if you can find the right guide. I think I have found her.