Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: An Elephant in the Garden, by Michael Morpurgo (Feiwel and Friends, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

British author Michael Morpurgo, who's written more than 100 books for young people, is currently in the limelight as the author of War Horse, the World War I novel on which the current Steven Spielberg film and hit play are based.  His most recent book to be published in the U.S. (October 2011) is another moving story of a family and an animal in wartime, this time set during the Second World War and involving a somewhat more unusual animal--an elephant.

Inspired by historical truth and the author's self-professed love of elephants, this novel tells a story within a story; a young boy named Karl visits his mother at the nursing home where she works in present day England.  He's the only one who takes seriously an elderly woman named Lizzie (Elizabeth) when she tells him about Marlene, the elephant that lived in her garden.  When Karl and his mother sit down to listen, Lizzie spins the extraordinary saga of her life as a young girl in Dresden, at the time of World War II.  Her mother worked at the zoo there, and sought permission from authorities to bring a lonely orphaned elephant to stay with them each night, walking her to and from the zoo each day from the garden outside their home.

When Dresden is fire bombed by a savage Allied air raid attack, Elizabeth takes to the roads along with Mutti (her mother), her little brother, Karli, and their beloved, gentle, and wise four-year old elephant, Marlene, named after movie star idol Marlene Dietrich.  They are joined on the roads by thousands of other bewildered civilian refugees, who have seen their city turned into ashes.  Knowing that the Russians are closing in on Germany from the East and the Allies from the West, the family decides to take its chances with the Americans and the British forces by heading west.

On their journey to safety, they meet Peter, a young Canadian navigator who's been shot down and is being pursued by German police.  Lizzie is consumed with guilt by her immediate attraction to this handsome enemy, and despite the fact that her mother is filled with hatred toward the soldiers who bombed her beautiful city to smithereens, Peter soon becomes a member of their ragtag family.  However, their lives are filled with danger since Peter could be arrested at any moment by German police and sent to a POW camp.  And it's pretty hard to travel without being noticed when you're travelling with an elephant in tow...will Lizzie and her family make it to safety?  And what will happen to Marlene?

The author uses different fonts so that young readers are not confused by the time shifts between Lizzie's story during the war and Lizzie's conversations with Karl and his mother.  At less than 200 pages, this is a quick read for strong readers and a relatively easy book for reluctant readers as well.  The well-paced story is sure to appeal to both those who love animal stories and readers looking for an adventure story or historical fiction.  I particularly admired the way that Morpurgo shows the way the war impacted ordinary German civilians; for example, the rise of Hitler causes a rift between different members of Lizzie's family, some of whom support Hitler and others who think he's an abomination.  We also see  the manner in which the Allied bombings affected everyone, from the children to Peter, the Canadian bomber, who although the enemy, is kind to Lizzie and her family.

Morpurgo is one of the U.K.'s most beloved children's authors, but is not immune to criticism; McDonalds in England is handing out free copies of his books with their Happy Meals, as part of a special promotion for the release of War Horse in England.  Despite the fact that all of Morpurgo's royalties are going to charity, this promotion has been criticized as encouraging childhood obesity (see the article below for further details).

McDonald's UK Switches Out Happy Meal Toys For... (


PragmaticMom said...

Wow, fascinating story! I actually think it's great that McDonalds is handing out books instead of plastic toys!

Fourth Musketeer said...

I agree with you--Chik-fil-A here in California was giving out copies of classic Golden Books with their kids meals instead of toys, which I thought was a welcome change from the junk that the kids usually get at fast food restaurants.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

My daughter read this and loved's on my reading list too.

Louise said...

This one is on my TBR. I've read a number of Morpurgo's book- Private Peaceful is one of the most extraordinary books for young people that I've ever read.