By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
THE ELEPHANT KEEPER
By Christopher Nicholson
Morrow. 298 pp. $24.99
If you donate $100 to the National Zoo's upcoming elephant exhibit, you'll receive a pin made from elephant poo paper, which is just what it sounds like. But we'll take anything we can get from these fascinating creatures. For thousands of years, that desire has driven a market for their ivory, their feet and their freedom, as elephants have been worshiped and slaughtered, applauded and abused. More recently, even the best-intentioned efforts to cultivate elephants in zoos have come under persuasive criticism from groups insisting that the animals suffer in captivity. Sadly, our love affair with elephants, nurtured from the earliest children's books, has too often proved deadly to them.
Christopher Nicholson's enchanting first novel is full of the mingled affection and tragedy that have long marked our relationship with the world's largest terrestrial animals. "The Elephant Keeper" is a strange tour of late 18th-century England, a natural history of elephants and the story of a most unusual friendship, all told with a touch of the otherworldly elegance and wit of Babar.
The story opens in the port city of Bristol in 1766, when a young groomsman named Tom Page hears a rumor that sailors have brought a mermaid to the harbor. Although that proves to be false, their actual cargo is equally exotic: "a Leopard, a striped horse, two Elephants, and a baboon with a white beard and blue testicles." After 91 days in wooden crates, the animals are dead or dying, but Tom's wealthy master buys the two baby elephants and puts him in charge of caring for them on his massive estate.
Nicholson is a radio documentary producer in Britain, and, in Tom Page, he's created a narrator who shares his faith in careful, factual storytelling. "The simple Truth should be your aim," his employer tells him, and so Tom begins a touching, sometimes bitterly sad adventure that will last decades and take him all over England.
Nicholson's story reminds us of how little people in the West knew about these animals. Tom's master has ambitious plans to raise elephants and harvest their tusks the way ranchers take wool from their sheep. "The tusks will re-grow," he tells Tom confidently. "Once they reach a certain length, they are shed, like the antlers of deer in the autumn." Right. Even Tom, though charged with their care, knows nothing more about the animals than his master does. He discovers what they can eat and do only through "a kind of guess-work." When they're sick, he bleeds them, purges them and hopes for the best.
Nicholson captures the quiet rhythms of country life in rich, harvest colors. But he also illustrates that this was a time when attitudes about nature were in radical flux. We hear of scholars debating whether animals have souls, whether they think and have language. Inspired by new romantic attitudes, wealthy gentlemen want jewellike lakes dug and Edenic groves planted. They construct faux ruins and Grecian temples on their estates, complete with actors playing hermits. The elephants are an irresistible accoutrement.
The novel's allure rests upon Nicholson's ability to render the relationship between the young keeper and his Indian elephants in this incongruous setting. They're awfully magical as they wander the English countryside together. "Greatly excited, and making little squeals and rumbles of pleasure, the Elephants grazed though the blue-bells, their trunks flying out to latch on to hazel branches, which they dragged and tore down and stuffed into their mouths," Tom writes. "The Elephants' feet squeaked on the leaves, crushing them and making them smell strongly."
Just when the novel seems a little too adorable, the complicated undertone of Tom's devotion begins to rumble in the background. "It was a curious sensation to feel a waft of hot Elephant breath on my cheek or ear," he writes in one of many intimations that his attraction to these animals is tinged with romantic ardor. Even as he celebrates this remarkable friendship, Nicholson wants to explore the darker implications of such devotion. "Your life is ruled by the Elephants," Tom's frustrated girlfriend tells him. "You are shackled to them, you are their slave, you have no time for anything else." But Tom can't hear such criticism. "How could they begin to understand," he thinks, "when they do not understand the Elephants, when they do not even see them properly. . . ? They have to be cared for. No one else can do it." His obsessiveness keeps the animals alive, but at what cost to Tom and everyone else in his life? These elephants are large, after all, large enough to take up all the room in his heart. He wonders too late if he's keeping the elephants or if they're keeping him.
If you've ever watched elephants for a while, you have a pretty good idea of this novel's pacing and your own tolerance for it. For several chapters, the story doesn't appear to move at all, but at other times (too late for some readers, I fear) it thunders along with surprising speed. I never found it boring, but it's easy for me to imagine other zoogoers who would rather move on to the snack pavilion. Frankly, I'm surprised that Nicholson's editor didn't insist on a more effective distribution of the action. There's a rape, for goodness' sake, a mugging, a fistfight, even a murder and a flight for survival! But all those excitements are loaded in the novel's second half.
What's evident in every chapter, though, is Nicholson's attention to these animals, their incongruous heft and grace, the dexterous twist and twirl of their trunks, their haunting sense of wisdom and forbearance. It's no accident that Tom refers to "Gulliver's Travels" several times. Like Swift's intrepid adventurer, Tom has been won over by an expression of humanity greater than humankind's. You may be, too.
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