Kate DiCamillo’s THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT: Beauty and Wonder
I’ve been thinking about this post for four or five days. Ever since I got a few pages into The Magician’s Elephant. Because I could tell right away that this was going to be one of those books. One of those books that is so brilliant, so lovely, and so…magical, that I can’t figure out what or how the author–in this case, Kate DiCamillo— has done to get all this beauty on the page.
If you’ve read many of my other reviews, where I pretty much talk about the pieces of a story, the elements of writing in which the author just rocks, you might guess that this–this not knowing–can drive me crazy. Just a little bit. You know, at the same time as I’m falling in love with the book.
Which I did with The Magician’s Elephant. On every page. (Or as my Kindle calls them, every “location.” I know. I’m so not used to that yet.)
I’m going to give you the basic premise/intro of the book (without spoilers), but be warned–no plot retelling , or character description, can convey what is so special about this book. A young boy named Peter hears from a fortune teller that his sister, Adele, is alive. He also hears that to find her, he has to follow the elephant. Peter lives in a European city in which–guess. There are no elephants. Until…
That’s it. That’s all the storyline you’re going to get. The arrival of the elephant is just one of those things you need to read in DiCamillo’s writing, not mine.
So what am I going to talk about?
The world. The voice. The magic.
The Magician’s Elephant is, I think, maybe an example of what some people call magical realism. The city Peter lives in could be any European city–for all I know, it’s a real one I haven’t heard of. The story could take place any time before cars. At least there are no cars in the book. There are social classes–super rich down to Peter, who lives in a small room at the top of a house with a retired, and slightly not-sane, soldier, who could have fought in any past European war. Before cars. And then something magical happens.
You probably guessed that, with the title and all. Except the magic I’m talking about is not the magic of the magician. Yes, he does something, and that something is big and has big consequences, but the magic is more. The magic is the feeling DiCamillo conveys that anything–anything–can happen in this world, this little world of Peter and Adele and the policeman Leo Matienne and his wife Gloria. And the elephant. And the feeling that the anything is always going to be something good and something right.
Wait, you’re saying. What about conflict? What about problems? What about the tension created in the reader when they can’t tell if things will turn out all right. Come on, Becky, you’re always arguing in favor of making things worse, amping up that conflict, keeping the reader wondering.
Yeah, well, guess what. In this book, in these pages of DiCamillo’s writing, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t worried about Peter. What matters is that–somehow, magically–she makes you turn every page, wanting more, even as she creates this incredibly strong faith in you, this absolute belief that Peter will find Adele. And that they’ll be happily together again.
DiCamillo does keep you wondering about the how: what exactly will Peter do, who exactly will help him, what actual steps will lead Peter back to his sister and make the elephant happy as well. So, yes, I’m sure that, technically, some of the page-turning need comes from the curiosity she evokes in the reader.
But what really keeps you reading, I believe, is that sense of magic. That sense of absolute possibility and hope.
I am not a sappy person. I don’t like sappy books. I like a happy ending, but I’m very dissatisfied when I hit one of those that feels forced or at odds with where the story needed to go. So it’s not just that everything comes together at the end that made me love this book. That never works for me, by itself.
It’s the language. If I had hours and hours available to me, I could probably take a page of this book and pick it apart for the words and phrasing that DiCamillo crafts that create what is for me, a thing of beauty. Of course, the characters matter–Peter’s longing for his sister, his grief over the promises he made his mother that he hasn’t been able to fulfill; Adele’s dreams about the elephant, Sister Marie’s flying dreams, Madame LaVaughn’s need for understanding and attention. Every character in this story has a problem, a goal, and–most importantly–a connection to the others. Of course, the plot is strong–one thing causes the next, which connects to something earlier, which leads to another action. Perfect. DiCamillo doesn’t miss a story beat. Of course, it’s the surprise events, the twists, even the coincidences, that add to this feeling of wonder–magic does happen here, and magic leads to people coming together, people questioning assumptions, people doing things that count.
But…yeah. The words.
Nathan Bransford put up a post the other day about whether the publishing industry cares too much about good writing. Then, here, he includes a full comment from one of his readers to that post. In terms of the publishing business, no, I’m guessing the industry doesn’t need to stick to publishing books written as beautifully as The Magician’s Elephant. I’m not naming any other titles, but I would take any bet that several we can all think of made gazillions of dollars more for their authors (and publishers) than The Magician’s Elephant did. I agree with Nathan when he says, “I’m unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about “good” writing. They care about stories and settings and characters. Prose? I’m not sure I buy it.”
But. Yeah, you knew there was a “but.” Or a BUT!
I care. Oh, I so care. Prose like DiCamillo’s makes me feel like I’ve been wrapped in the most beautifully woven piece of tapestry ever created, one that is as soft as flannel and as shimmery as silk and in which gold and silver embroidery traces every detail. It makes me feel like I’m sitting on a sun-warmed rock above treeline, looking into a valley of greens and grays and who-knows-what animal life moving around in it. It makes me feel, at once, as though I never want this book to end and as though I need to put it down right that instant and turn to my own writing, in an impossible but timeless attempt to create something of my own that even comes close.
Do I read those other books? Of course. Do I enjoy them. Definitely.
Still. There is in me, and I think in many others, a wish for more. For the beauty.