When ten-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene encounters a fortune teller in the marketplace one day and she tells him that his sister, who is presumed dead, is in fact alive, he embarks on a remarkable series of adventures as he desperately tries to find her.
Learning that his heart is true, the gypsy also told Peter that an elephant will lead him to her.
When a magician arrives in town, instead of casting a spell to produce flowers, alas, a huge elephant crashes down through the ceiling of the theater.
The 2001 Newbery honor winner for Because of Winn Dixie and the 2004 Newbery medal recipient for The Tale of Despereaux, DiCamillo once again wove magic in an exquisitely crafted bewitchingly enchanting tale of a boy, his sister, his master, a downtrodden magician, a police officer, a countess and a mason worker who are all impacted by the unexpected.
Richly detailed with captivating images, this dark tale is filled with light and hope.
This is a book for children with adults in mind. The beautiful images were so evocative that I didn't want the book to end.
The Magician's Elephant is about Peter Augustus Duchene, a young boy who has lost his entire family and who has been adopted by an ill and disgruntled soldier (Vilna Lutz) who wants Peter to grow up to be just like him. But when Peter spends Vilna's grocery money on a fortuneteller, he
learns an amazing truth: his sister is alive and an elephant will lead the way. A series of strange events soon follows and Peter begins to question everything, uncovering the lies about his life and his family.
DiCamillo makes me wish I had children. The Magician's Elephant lends itself well to parental voice acting because it has such a large cast of characters: Peter, Vilna, Adele, the Elephant (you read that right), the Magician, Leo, and several more. Each character, remarkably, has his or her own storyline, though some get more attention than others for obvious reasons. The plethora of characters adds a certain charm to the story, since it allows DiCamillo to move temporarily away from the dark family-oriented narrative of Peter into the odd-ness of her world and its eccentric cast. The novel never truly escapes from darkness, though, resting firmly in dark comedy territory.
The darkness is perhaps why I found the book so interesting. Setting aside Peter's orphan status, the novel is rife with trauma-induced mental illness. Vilna is a broken soldier who still thinks he's part of the army, crying out as if experiencing flashbacks from a war we're never really told about. The Magician and Madam LaVaughn have been reduced to the repetition of the same grief-stricken routine by the trauma of the Elephant's entry into the world. Some readers may find the darkness overwhelming, but I think the effect it has on the closure of the narrative is more powerful than would the excavation of everything but Peter's story. The intersection of all of these other stories and traumas makes the ending a fascinating (almost cathartic) experience (though, in all honesty, I think there were too many secondary characters, some of which weren't given the attention they deserved). A good deal of the trauma is also attached to an underlying didacticism in the narrative, which I found interesting not because there were messages to be found and learned in The Magician's Elephant, but because the perspective through which these moralistic moments are derived is that of a child (Peter). There aren't any grand moments in which adult characters tell the young protagonist that X is wrong and that they must learn a lesson (except when DiCamillo wants to show how some of the adults are hypocrites).
As a story for kids, I think The Magician's Elephant is a fantastic read. While the story is dark, there are plenty of humorous moments. The quirkiness of the plot and characters doesn't get in the way of the story, though, which is something some chapter books fall prey to. Instead, The Magician's Elephant is a wonderful story about the power of family, friends, forgiveness, and compassion, with an interesting cast of characters and a strong plot. It's definitely something to read with your kids (if you have them) or to read on your own.
It begins spectacularly, with a performance at the Bliffendorf Opera in the city of Baltese, when a magician, intending to produce a bouquet of lilies to a noblewoman in the audience, instead causes an elephant to come crashing through the roof and into the lady's lap, crippling her. Earlier that day, 10-year old Peter Augustus Duchene had been told by a fortuneteller that in order to find his little sister, who disappeared when she was an infant, he should "follow the elephant".
So here we have: a mystery (where did the elephant come from?), a quest (finding the lost sister), and a wrong to right (poor, crippled noblewoman). Plenty goes on in this book, but none of these conundrums is really satisfactorily resolved. Except for the sister, but there is certainly none of the expected quest.
First of all, where are we? It's dank and cold all the time, most of the population is poor and sad, and the shadowy illustrations by Yoko Tanaka show a world where little hope is expected. Most of the people have vaguely French or Russian names and the clothing seems to reflect circa 1900. The overall gloom lends itself to lots of dreams and imagery, all beautifully crafted, but surely these resonate more with adults than they do with children.
I had high hopes for the elephant. When Peter finally meets her, I expect that she will speak to him and give him wise counsel but, alas, she is too depressed. She is being viewed and poked and prodded by the masses and she misses her homeland, wherever that is. (We don't know her name because, the omniscient narrator tells us, it's in a language we wouldn't understand.) Peter discerns all this by looking into her eye because she is not a talking elephant and so he decides to forget about the sister and find a way to get the elephant home.
The moral of the story is clear: alone we are powerless but together we can do anything. Peter enlists the help of his neighbor, a beggar,a stone mason, the noblewoman and, of course, the magician and together they send the elephant on her way. To where? No idea. Oh, and the sister sees all the hubub from her window in the neighboring orphanage, joins the group, and is immediately recognized because her name is the same as that of Peter's lost sister. They are reunited, proving the fortuneteller correct.
It took me a while to figure out why nothing about this book inspired me. I wanted the elephant to be the hero of the book because poor little Peter was way too noble for me. All DiCamillo's other heros have been an uppity mouse (The Tale of Despereaux), an egotistical rabbit (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and spoiled pig (Mercy Watson). Her only other human protagonist was the girl in Because of Winn Dixie and she was an interesting child with a wonderful spirit and curiosity.
Poor Peter, being raised in a garret by a doddering old soldier, is certainly a sympathetic character, but in the end I could only feel pity for him and relief that he was out of that garret. And where in the world did that elephant go?
My kids (ages 7 and 10, boy and girl) were underwhelmed. They were expecting the adventure and humor of The Tale of Desperaux, or the adventure of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This was too quiet and thoughtful for them. They did want to hear more every night, but concluded that it was not a favorite.
A very charming story about hope and love and endless possibilities and the special bonds between living creatures. Thanks to Linda (Whisper1) for recommending this one. I've already got several other books by Kate DiCamillo on my wishlist and look forward to reading those too.
The story draws you in right from the beginning. The writing is poetic and stylish. Everything has a bit of magic, as if some magic fairy dust had been flinged around here and there.
I loved the actual elephant in the story and symbolicness of the elephant-in-the-room.
This book takes up the important cause of the questioning of everything. The hope Peter has is warm and rewarding. Recommended to children and adults.
The lovely: This book is mostly lovely. It's a story that starts simply and adds richness, meaning and layers as it goes. It's accessible to young readers, and would make a wonderful read aloud book for younger readers, but it's still enjoyable for adult readers. The setting is somewhere between reality and magic. The time is modern, old-fashioned and timeless. The details of space and time are vague, and some readers will likely envision different settings; it's a book that uses your imagination without you even realizing it. Yoko Tanaka's occasional drawings are beautiful.
Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10 year old boy who has lost his father to war, his mother to childbirth, and his sister at birth. He lives with a military friend of his father's. The problem is that Peter remembers hearing his sister cry and is convinced that she isn't dead. A fortuneteller tells his that he will find his sister if he follows the elephant; but he can't figure out what she means as there are no elephants in Peter's life. Then a magician tries to perform a feat of magic that goes horribly wrong. Peter needs to figure out how the lonely elephant will help him find his sister. The elephant needs to get home, but before that it will open the eyes of the citizens of Peter's city to the fact that wondrous things can happen.
This was a wonderful book. The characters are engaging and colorful, the writing wonderful. Like DiCamillo's other works the writing style follows classic fairy tale-type prose and results in a darkly atmospheric setting. The story is interspersed with wonderful illustrations by Yojo Tanaka, that fit the mood of the story perfectly.
The book itself is pretty small, at most a couple hours of reading. It seems like it would be a good book to read to children as it starts. As I continued to read it though I think many of the adult characters' pondering and some sensitive topics might make this more suited to the young adult (or older) crowd. At one point the elephant contemplates suicide and Peter's caretaker is occasionally quite cruel. Much of the story centers around characters outside of Peter himself and these characters spend a lot of time contemplating how the wonder of an elephant appearing in the city changes their perception of their lives, because if that can happen anything can happen. I think these contemplations will be lost on a younger child and they may find the book to be very slow moving and boring at parts.
I personally found these contemplations to be fascinating and thought-provoking. This is the kind of book that sounds very good when read out-loud and is very lyrical. The story itself is hopeful as well as thoughtful; although the overall atmosphere is very dark and dreary. I thought it was just a superb story. I look forward to reading DiCamillo's future works and will keep an eye out for her future publications.
The magician was old and his reputation was falling. Performing in the Bliffendorf Opera House that night, he wanted to do something more wonderful, more magic than he has ever done before. And he did. Rather than bringing forth a bouquet of lilies, he brought forth an elephant, crashing through the roof and crushing Madam LaVaughn’s legs, confining her to a life in a wheelchair.
Adele has always lived in the Orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Light. She knows no other home. Soon after the incident in the Bliffendorf Opera House, she begins dreaming of elephants knocking at the door of the orphanage.
Leo Matienne is a policeman. He lives below Peter Augustus Duchene in the Apartments Polonaise. He is not a man who accepts what is. He is a man who asks “What if?”
How these people’s lives intersect at the “end of the century before last”, in the city of Baltese is so wonderfully told in Kate DiCamillo’s newest book, The Magician’s Elephant. I believe it is her best book to date and can’t wait to put it into my personal library. The way she words the book, the way she describes the events and the city is amazing. The story is heartwarming. The drawings by Yoko Tanaka are excellent and add so much to the book. The Magician’s Elephant is a book for all ages, not just children. It talks about life and family and honesty. It makes you believe in fairytale endings. It makes you wonder. Whether you read the book by yourself or read it aloud to someone else, the proper thing to do is make sure you read The Magician’s Elephant.
Peter Augustus Duchene is a 10-year-old orphan who is in the keeping of his guardian, an old soldier named Vilna Lutz. Lutz is training Peter to be a soldier just like him, requiring him to perform such tasks as marching in place. Lutz has told Peter that his entire family is dead, including his sister, Adele; she was stillborn, Lutz tells Peter, and his mother died in birthing her.
One day Lutz sends Peter out with a coin intended to pay for fish and bread. In the marketplace, Peter comes across the red tent of a fortuneteller, bearing a sign promising: “The most profound and difficult questions that could possibly be posed by the human mind or heart will be answered within for the price of one florit.” Peter cannot help but be seduced by this promise, for “[t]he audacity of the words, their dizzying promise,” are too much to resist. His decision to spend his coin on the fortuneteller is worth the lost meal that results, for he learns that his sister lives. To find her, he must follow the elephant.
What the heck? An elephant? There are no elephants in the city of Baltese. But the fortuneteller assures Peter that what she has said is the truth, and “the truth is forever changing.”
That very evening a magician “of advanced years and failing reputation” attempts to conjure a bouquet of lilies for his audience at the Bliffendorf Opera House. He intends merely to use sleight of hand to present the lilies to a noblewoman watching the performance. But something deep inside the magician yearns to work real magic, and he whispers a spell. Through the roof comes an elephant, landing squarely on the noblewoman’s lap, crippling her. The magician is jailed, and the elephant is locked in a horse stable.
How we get from here to the rescue of Peter’s sister from an orphanage – a very fine orphanage, run by kindly nuns, but an orphanage just the same – is a tale of determination, love and magic. The poetic text is accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Yoko Tanaka, who works in shades of grey and a level of detail that makes them worth gazing upon for much longer than it takes to read a page of text.