Friday, 6 June 2014

The Child’s Elephant - Rachel Campbell Johnston - Carnegie Review

On initial glance the cover of The Child’s Elephant with its beautiful painted illustration of a young boy and a juvenile African Elephant sharing an embrace, gives the impression that this book is going to be a happy-feel-good-easy read. However when your turn the book over and see the illustration on the back cover depicting the silhouette of a child holding a rifle to a backdrop of army camouflage, it’s a physical jolt and you know that this book is more than just a tale about a child and his elephant.

In The Child’s Elephant, author Rachel Campbell Johnston has achieved something remarkable, following the tradition of many great classic books like, White Fang, Tarker the Otter, Zes, Born Free, the story shows the intimate relationship between a human boy; seven year old Bat and an orphaned African elephant, demonstrating the trials and emotional roller-coaster of caring for a wild creature. The writing is a feast of imagery that builds up into a world so intense and real that you can almost touch the culture of Bat’s community living in the village on the African plains.

The Child’s Elephant ensnares you from the first line, cranking up tension as it depicts the danger that  seven year old cattle herder, Bat, is in when alone in the Savannah he witnesses the brutal killing of an adult elephant by poachers. When Bat and his friend Muka bring the slain elephant’s calf home to the village and care for it we discover that Bat’s farther was a ranger who was himself slain whilst protecting the great beasts from poachers.

“The next thing Bat knew, two figures were scrambling onto the elephant’s corpse. A third fetched the chainsaw…it ripped into life at first tug and snarling, lunged forward, ferociously as a chained dog. Bat heard the long rising whine as it finally bit. Its blade spewed bloodied flecks.”

The book really comes to life with the arrival of elephant calf Maya, whose personality and mischievous nature brings lightness to the book. The relationship of Maya and Bat and the whole village who adopt the her is heart-warming, and the details of the day-to-day trials of rearing such a large wild creature who knows not her strength is fascinating and humorous as the little elephants... 

“trunk remained a source of problems. Sometimes she stepped on it and stumbled and tripped; sometimes it got stuck in a big clumpy knot; and often, snuffling about, she breathed up a great whoosh of dust which would madden her with its tickling and she would writhe it and wave it violently about.”
Reading the book and witnessing child and elephant grow is mesmerising and watching the two part ways, when Maya is reintroduced to the wild and taken in by a herd of her own kind, is an emotional tug. It’s in these scenes that Rachel’s writing is at its best; wrenching at your emotions; hinting at some deeper power of the mighty beasts; yet standing well clear of over-sentimentality.

“Bat gazed into the depths of her [Maya’s] russet-brown eyes. He could hear his heart pounding; the blood singing in his ears. He could see his tiny reflection, stilled like a speck in her long slow gaze. It was like a fly trapped in amber.”

The Child’s Elephant is written in three parts, each part having a different illustration at the beginning of each chapter within it. Part one being a lovely depiction baby Maya and then part two is of an army camp. This is when the book takes a darker turn, after Maya is released and fully integrated into the heard Bat and his friend Muka are abducted and forced into the child army. These chapters are engrossing and penned in a manner which clearly shows the terrors and atrocities that children, as young as eight, are forced to endure and inflict on others. The author has written in such way that the terror, fear and clearly displayed yet is obtainable and suitable for the audience. The section compels you read, willing the young protagonist to prevail as Bat contemplates escape rescuing Muka and save his beloved elephants.

“the boy called Bonyo…jumped up from the fire where he had been smoking dagga and staggered about waving his gun over his head, ‘I killed the last owner of this,’ he cried. ‘He deserved it. He had done too much damage with it…and since then I have done damage with it myself.’ Then all at once he began shooting.”

The book conclusion is bittersweet as the whole circle of life is shown, yet its ultimate feeling is one of hope. The Child’s Elephant is an astonishing read, at times brutal, at others gentle, always hopeful and an education in a culture and a part of the world that is often ignored, and highlighting the  plight of elephants against poachers . Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s writing is moving and honest, and in light of recent not dissimilar under-reported events in Nigeria I strongly compel you to pick up this book.

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