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BOOK REVIEW

'The Magician's Elephant' by Kate DiCamillo

The story of a boy and a pachyderm.

October 10, 2009|Susan Carpenter

Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo has made a specialty of chronicling animal protagonists who overcome unfortunate circumstances to become better versions of themselves.

Whether she's writing about a big-eared mouse who defies familial expectations in "The Tale of Despereaux" or a haughty rabbit who learns humility and the true meaning of love in "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," her stories are masterful middle-reader gems that inspire, educate and entrance.

With her latest book, "The Magician's Elephant," DiCamillo again delivers an elegant and imaginative story, this time centered on a pachyderm mistakenly conjured by a magician in a trick gone wildly wrong.

The magician, "of advanced years and failing reputation," intends to produce a bouquet of lilies to impress a local noblewoman. Instead, he gets an elephant, which crashes through an opera house ceiling before a live audience and falls into the woman's lap.

Such a delightfully absurd premise is made even more mysterious and charming by the era in which it takes place. In DiCamillo-speak, it's "the end of the century before last," when class divisions are severe, the social order well-defined and little boys like 10-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene are encouraged to obey their masters, no matter how misguided the intentions of those masters might be.

Peter's father was killed in a war; his mother died giving birth to his younger sister. Peter was handed to the soldier who delivered the bad news. His sister was shuttled to an orphanage, although Peter was told she had died.

That's a pretty bleak setup, but in DiCamillo's talented hands, it's also whimsical -- the result of a cast of eccentric and era-appropriate characters who aren't mean-spirited so much as humorously flawed.

There's the "small policeman with a very large mustache," who's been charged with monitoring the elephant; the prophetic fortune teller, who lets Peter know his sister is alive; the ancient nun, who's constantly sleeping rather than guarding the orphanage door; the crotchety soldier, who has a wooden foot and is prone to mock battles; and the narcissistic countess, who decides to keep the elephant in her ballroom amid "the glitter of chandeliers, the thrum of the orchestra, the loud laughter, the smells of roasted meat and cigar smoke and face powder."

And then, of course, there's the sad, sad elephant, who just wants to return to Africa.

Bringing all these characters together for a happy ending requires its own special magic, which is enhanced by DiCamillo's finely rendered Old World writing style -- and the gorgeously muted pencil illustrations of Los Angeles artist Yoko Tanaka.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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