In The Magician’s Elephant, Peter Augustus Duchene is a boy alone. He lives with Vilna Lutz, a soldier friend of his father’s, but his family is gone. His father is dead. His mother is dead. His sister, Adele, is – dead? That’s what Vilna Lutz has told him. But Peter visits a fortuneteller who leads him to question the truths he’s accepted. And she tells him that an elephant will guide him toward his true destiny.
An elephant? Impossible.
Or maybe not.
What if this is true? Could it possibly be true? These questions percolate in Peter’s head and heart. By opening his whole self to these possibilities, a space is created – inside and outside – for the answers to come. He hears about an elephant who has been conjured out of thin air by a magician, and he begins to believe. Then he finds out that the elephant is being held right in his town. Finally Peter’s wondering and believing becomes action. He helps the elephant find her home and in the process he moves closer to his own home.
Kate DiCamillo creates an ensemble cast, with Peter and the elephant at the center. Everyone – from the local beggar, to the man who cleans up after the elephant, to the policeman who lives below Peter, to the nun who runs the orphanage – suffers in the same way. They are all not quite where they belong, not quite living whole, fulfilling lives.
For change to come, they must all choose – as Peter has – to open themselves up to questions. As Leo Matienne, the policeman says, “We must ask ourselves [these] questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” This, in and of itself, is a worthy theme. Asking questions and believing in the possibility of. But the entire cast of characters discovers that they cannot choose to open themselves up to questions and possibilities alone. Separately they don’t have the imagination, or the courage or, most importantly, the openness to the present moment necessary for such an endeavor. This is where Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant craftwork shines through, and her themes elevate from simply worthy to breathtaking.
In the stunning penultimate scene, Peter, intent on getting the elephant back to her home, walks with her on a snowy night, along with all of the others. They are focused on the task at hand, putting one foot in front of the other as snow falls gently on their heads. And miraculously, while deeply immersed in the process of getting the elephant back home, Peter finds what he wants most. “It’s the impossible… The impossible has happened again.” In this transformative moment, everyone finds what they want most. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are found by their deepest desires.
This is the magic of Kate DiCamillo’s story – articulating the idea that in choosing to open yourself up to questions and possibilities and fully giving yourself over to something real and present and physical, you allow your deepest desires to come to you. This is the magic to really living, don’t you think?
Sounds like an interesting read, and maybe a good book for kids going through a period of change.