For a country in which pachyderms are far from native (even our zoo elephants have been moved out to more appropriate climes!), Canadian literature features a disproportionately large number bestselling and beloved works of fiction featuring elephants—from Barbara Gowdy's masterpiece The White Bone, to brand new releases Matara, by Conni Massing, and Jumbo, by Stephens Gerard Malone.
Here are a few of our favourite books about elephants for adult readers.
Elephant Winter, by Kim Echlin
About the book: Sophie Walker is back from Africa to nurse her dying mother. Her mother's Ontario farm borders on "Safari"—a tacky tourist spot now deserted for the winter. From her mother's window Sophie sees not cows, or horses, but a group of Indian elephants playing gracefully in the snow. Elephant Winter is a novel about the forms of intimacy, from the turbulent love between a mother and daughter to the fulfilling bond between Sophie and the elephants.
The Elephant Talks to God, by Dale Estey
About the book: The Elephant Talks to God is an endearing collection of whimsical tales in which a young elephant forages for answers to that age-old existential puzzle: What is the meaning of life? In this new edition of Dale Estey's best-selling book, this pachyderm philosopher asks questions and God answers — sometimes cryptically, sometimes humorously but always with love and patience.
The answers unfold in a series of conversations between this humble, though occasionally impertinent, beast and the Almighty. The free-ranging exchanges between the two include contributions from popes, missionaries and various monkeys, birds and insects. This sweet, sometimes satirical, and occasionally moving story will appeal to readers of all ages. The book includes most of the original stories from the popular 1989 collection as well as many new ones.
Original, fresh and unsentimental, The Elephant Talks to God belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who, just like the inquisitive elephant, has ever wondered about life, love and the true nature of happiness.
The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy
About the book: If elephants could tell just one story, it would be the story of Mud, a young elephant cow orphaned at birth and blessed with visionary powers. Mud’s life on the African plain is changed forever when she and her adopted family are forced by prolonged drought to linger at one of the few remaining watering holes. The herd is ambushed there by ivory poachers, who kill almost all the cows and their young. The traumatized survivors, including a pregnant Mud, set out in search of the talismanic white bone that can lead them to a paradise free from human savagery.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
About the book: Orphaned and penniless at the height of the Depression, Jacob Jankowski escapes everything he knows by jumping on a passing train—and inadvertently runs away with the circus. So begins Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen’s darkly beautiful tale about the characters who inhabit the less-than-greatest show on earth.
Jacob finds a place tending the circus animals, including a seemingly untrainable elephant named Rosie. He also comes to know Marlena, the star of the equestrian act—and wife of August, a charismatic but cruel animal trainer. Caught between his love for Marlena and his need to belong in the crazy family of travelling performers, Jacob is freed only by a murderous secret that will bring the big top down.
Water for Elephants is an enchanting page-turner, the kind of book that creates a world that engulfs you from the first page to the last. A national bestseller in Canada and a New York Times bestseller in the United States, this is a book destined to become a beloved fiction classic.
Jumbo, by Stephens Gerard Malone
About the book: There was, perhaps, no living creature more famous in the nineteenth century than Jumbo the elephant. Born in 1860 and taken from the wilds between Sudan and Eritrea at the age of two, he was sold to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and then to the London Zoological Gardens, before becoming the prized possession of notorious American showman P. T. Barnum. "Jumbomania" swept England, embroiled the Houses of Parliament, erupted into open warfare in the British and American press, and monopolized popular kitsch and culture. By the time Jumbo sailed into New York City in 1882, thousands scrambled for a chance to see "The Sun of the Amusement World."
In this magnificent feat of historical fiction, Jumbo's story is told by Little Eyes Nell Kelly, The World's Smallest Singing, Dancing, Horse-riding Woman and Barnum's star attraction. Initially jealous of her gargantuan new co-star, Nell keeps a close eye on Jumbo and his reclusive and dedicated trainer, Matthew Scott. But Nell soon realizes that she and Jumbo are simply two caged creatures in a circus full—and Jumbo's confinement is slowly killing him. As The Greatest Show on Earth criss-crosses North America, Nell must brave greedy circus showmen, backstabbing trapeze artists, and the relentless pursuit of the cruel animal trainer, Elephant Bill, to keep the curtain from closing on her career—and her very life.
Taking readers from the deserts of Sudan to Buckingham Palace, to the manor houses of Connecticut and the dizzying heights of the Brooklyn Bridge, and every "one-saloon-three-church town" in between, Jumbo is a menagerie of riotous colour that brings Jumbo's incredible story to life, and a masterful novel that explores exploitation, unrequited love, and the unbreakable bond between living things.
Matara: The Elephant Play, by Conni Massing
About the book: At a crumbling zoo, an elephant keeper, a security guard, and a newly hired media consultant have differing views over what should be done about the zoo's main attraction, the aging Sri Lankan elephant Matara. Matara is deteriorating by the day following the loss of her companion elephant Cheerio and a petition is circulating to try to force the zoo's management to move her to a sanctuary. Karen, Matara's keeper, argues adamantly that the zoo is Matara's home and family, and that she is not strong enough to travel. Romney, the enthusiastic but increasingly stressed media consultant, thinks more about donations and galas than Matara's life, while Marcel the security guard and an international graduate student struggling in the last stages of his thesis, understands the perspective of the protestors even as he seeks to protect the zoo's employees.
Weaving between the perspectives of public relations, zoos as unique spaces of human animal interaction, and the question of whether or not zoos should exist at all, Conni Massing's latest play takes inspiration from real life debates that surround Lucy, the lone elephant at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, asking poignant questions about our relationships with animals, and the power dynamics and instability that surround them.
elephant keeper, argues that the zoo is Matara's home now, after so long away from the wild, and that the elephant is too weak to travel. Romney, the enthusiastic (and stressed) consultant, thinks more about donations and galas rather than Matara's life, while Marcel the security guard empathizes with the protestors even as he must protect the zoo's employees from increasingly volatile protests. Weaving between the perspectives of public relations, the importance of allowing humans to experience animal encounters as well as whether zoos should even exist at all, Conni Massing's latest play takes inspiration from real life debates on captive elephants to ask poignant questions about our relationships with animals and the power dynamics that surround them.
The Elephant on Karluv Bridge, by Thomas Trofimuk
About the book: Set in Prague and narrated by the 600-year-old Charles Bridge, this novel begins with an lephant named Sál escaping the Prague Zoo. As the elephant moves through the beautiful Czech city, the lives of the men and women she meets are altered by the encounter. Each character is at a crossroads, and desperately seeking the wisdom they need to wrestle with profound questions—how to live, how to love, who to love, how to heal. And the elephant herself is haunted, as memories of her long-ago capture in Africa resurface.
Sál carries the narrative from one point of view to another: Vasha, a writer and night watchman at the zoo, and his wife Marta, a psychotherapist, confront the question of whether to have a child; Šárka, Marta’s patient and a dancer at the end of her career, is visited by a charming and often abrasive manifestation of the long-dead ballerina Anna Pavlova; Joseph, a clown and bouffon, performs on the Karlův Bridge itself, and he is about to be struck down (literally and figuratively) by a new love… Through it all, Sál steals the show, wandering the streets in search of water and food, bearing her own share of sadness and painful memories as she struggles to find her way out of her bewildering predicament. Though she, like the humans she encounters, is free now to make her own choices, she is also displaced and lost. Thomas Trofimuk’s novel masterfully convinces us to accept all the wonders contained in it: that a bridge can tell a story, that art is integral to our survival, that an elephant can scatter sudden flashes of insight in her wake, that there is no separation between the grief of elephants and the grief of humans.
Double Dutch, by Laura Trunkey
About the book: Intensely imaginative and darkly emotional, the weird and wonderful stories in Double Dutch deftly alternate between fantasy and reality, transporting readers into strange worlds that are at once both familiar and uncanny — where animals are more human, and people more mysterious, than they first appear.
Shape-shifters, doppelgangers, and spirits inhabit the extraordinary worlds depicted in Trunkey’s stories: a single mother believes her toddler is the reincarnation of a terrorist; Ronald Reagan’s body double falls in love with the first lady; a man grieves for his wife after a bear takes over her body. The collection also includes moving tales grounded in painful and touching reality: a young deaf girl visits Niagara Falls before she goes blind; an elephant named Topsy is killed on Coney Island by Thomas Edison in 1903; and a woman learns the truth about her son’s disappearance while searching with her husband in the Canadian Rockies.
This enchanting and, at times, heartbreaking debut collection of stories hails the arrival of an exceptional new literary talent.
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