Did you know that 145 years ago this year, a zookeeper walked an elephant from Edinburgh to Manchester? In fact, Maharajah is so famous, not only is his skeleton still on display in the Manchester Museum, he’s now also the subject of Jane Kerr’s YA debut.
One of my favourite places in Dublin is the so-called ‘Dead Zoo’ on Merrion Street. Built in 1856 to display the collections of the Royal Dublin Society, it’s home to thousands of stuffed animals – lions, tigers, bears, and everything in between. They’re presented in their original cases, and they watch you through the same glass eyes that once stared out at awe-struck Victorian visitors. Stepping inside the museum is like stepping back in time, bringing alive 19th century society and its complex relationship with the ‘exotic’ natural world in a visceral and thrilling way.
Jane Kerr seems to have felt a similar connection to history upon learning about the Great Elephant Walk of 1872, when a zookeeper walked an elephant named Maharajah all the way from Edinburgh to its new home at the Bellevue Zoological Gardens in Manchester. It’s an incredible story, and luckily for young readers, it inspired Kerr to craft this exciting and heartfelt debut.
Kerr reimagines the Elephant Walk as a coming-of-age journey for orphan pickpocket Danny. A menagerist named Mr Jameson has purchased Maharajah, and bet his entire zoo that he’ll get the elephant to Manchester in 10 days. When Maharajah appears to take a liking to dark-skinned Danny, Mr Jameson crafts a canny plan to drum up publicity for the walk. With no family or friends tying him to the city he’s grown up in, Danny agrees to pose as an Indian prince and ride the elephant across the countryside, embarking on an adventure that’s even more thrilling than the outlandish tale Mr Jameson is crafting for the press.
Danny is a wonderfully engaging hero. Kerr wisely refrains from delving too deeply into the hardships of his life as a ‘worthless’ pickpocket, focusing instead on how the Elephant Walk offers him the opportunity to decide who he wants to become. His setbacks and difficulty in trusting both himself and his fellow travellers will break readers’ hearts in the best possible way, and his relationship with Maharajah is very nicely drawn. Their connection is strong but realistic, born of a shared history of abuse instead of the type of near supernatural connection that is sometimes seen in this genre.
While the story moves along at a steady clip, it can occasionally feel a bit over-stuffed. A sub-plot involving a criminal under-lord who is chasing Danny at times threatens to overwhelm the book’s more original characters, but ultimately Kerr introduces some clever twists and manages to resolve everything in a satisfactory and uplifting manner.
The historical details are blended into the action beautifully, immersing the reader in a world that is both foreign and all too familiar. The themes of The Elephant Thief are incredibly meaty, as Kerr illuminates issues of animal rights, poverty, prejudice, identity, and Empire. The idea of media manipulation is of course very relevant today, and its treatment here is particularly nuanced. Both the heroes and the villains of the novel are purposefully crafting ‘fake news’ and misleading the public, and readers are left to decide for themselves whether the consequences of such tactics can be justified.
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- Author: Jane Kerr
- ISBN: 9781910655757
- Publisher: Chicken House
- Age range: 9-12 years