The Magician's Elephant

by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2009, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Smith

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BookBrowse Review

A magical tale full of hopeful messages for children and adults, from the author of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Feeling separate is a universal experience. Too often these days, we live behind picket fences, or triple-locked doors. We live behind stone walls or lines in the sand. We live behind fear or worry. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo is a story about people who break through these barriers - a story brimming with connection and the hope, love and, yes, even magic that comes from those connections. On the one hand it's a magical, faraway fable, and on the other hand a very present and real story, both woven together (dare I say connected together?) in the seamless way that can only come from Kate DiCamillo. Loss, love, and hope are recurring themes in her work - think Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, to name just a few - and in all of them she displays her knack for entwining real and believable characters with a bit of magic.

In The Magician’s Elephant, Peter Augustus Duchene is a boy alone. He lives with Vilna Lutz, a soldier friend of his father's, but his family is gone. His father is dead. His mother is dead. His sister, Adele, is - dead? That's what Vilna Lutz has told him. But Peter visits a fortuneteller who leads him to question the truths he's accepted. And she tells him that an elephant will guide him toward his true destiny.

An elephant? Impossible.

Or maybe not.

What if this is true? Could it possibly be true? These questions percolate in Peter's head and heart. By opening his whole self to these possibilities, a space is created - inside and outside - for the answers to come. He hears about an elephant who has been conjured out of thin air by a magician, and he begins to believe. Then he finds out that the elephant is being held right in his town. Finally Peter's wondering and believing becomes action. He helps the elephant find her home and in the process he moves closer to his own home.

Kate DiCamillo creates an ensemble cast, with Peter and the elephant at the center. Everyone - from the local beggar, to the man who cleans up after the elephant, to the policeman who lives below Peter, to the nun who runs the orphanage - suffers in the same way. They are all not quite where they belong, not quite living whole, fulfilling lives.

For change to come, they must all choose - as Peter has - to open themselves up to questions. As Leo Matienne, the policeman says, "We must ask ourselves [these] questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?" This, in and of itself, is a worthy theme. Asking questions and believing in the possibility of. But the entire cast of characters discovers that they cannot choose to open themselves up to questions and possibilities alone. Separately they don't have the imagination, or the courage or, most importantly, the openness to the present moment necessary for such an endeavor. This is where Kate DiCamillo's brilliant craftwork shines through, and her themes elevate from simply worthy to breathtaking.

In the stunning penultimate scene, Peter, intent on getting the elephant back to her home, walks with her on a snowy night, along with all of the others. They are focused on the task at hand, putting one foot in front of the other as snow falls gently on their heads. And miraculously, while deeply immersed in the process of getting the elephant back home, Peter finds what he wants most. "It's the impossible… The impossible has happened again." In this transformative moment, everyone finds what they want most. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are found by their deepest desires.

This is the magic of Kate DiCamillo's story - articulating the idea that in choosing to open yourself up to questions and possibilities and fully giving yourself over to something real and present and physical, you allow your deepest desires to come to you. This is the magic to really living, don’t you think?

On the process of writing The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo says:

"I started writing [a magician's] story down, and I discovered that in addition to the magician, there was a boy named Peter, a girl named Adele, an elephant (of course), a policeman, magic, wonder, snow, hope, song. I had just come through one of the most difficult winters of my life, and as I wrote, I realized that I was resting the whole of my heart on the story, that all my sadness, all my despair, all my hope and love, was going into the telling of the tale. I was struck anew with the power of story, how it gives us a way to understand ourselves, our hearts, our world - how it can work to put things back together again. It is my outrageous wish that you, as you read this story, will find some of the comfort and hope and magic, some of the healing power, that I found in the telling of it."

Having just come through one of the most difficult winters of my own life, I can absolutely say that this book did just that for me. It brought me comfort and hope and, yes, magic. I can't help but think that The Magician's Elephant has the potential to do the same for anyone who reads it.

This book is well suited for middle grade and young adult readers, although I do think that younger children would enjoy it too, perhaps having it read to them by an adult.

Reviewed by Tamara Smith

This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Houdini and his Vanishing Elephant

The magician in The Magician's Elephant makes an elephant appear. But what about an elephant that disappears?



In 1918, Houdini made an elephant vanish from the middle of the Hippodrome Theatre in New York before over 5000 pairs of eyes. Jennie was an 8 foot tall, 6,000 pound Asian elephant and when Houdini brought her onto the stage she would raise her trunk as though she were saying hello to the audience, and then she would walk into a box on wheels - and disappear.

Who taught Houdini how to do this magic trick? And how did Houdini do it?

First the who. In the early part of the 1900's, a man named Charles Morritt (1860-1936), sold and taught Houdini the basic principles of this illusion. A few years ago, Morritt's great-nephew, Norman Allen, researched his family ancestry and uncovered the story of this not-so-famous illusionist and hypnotist from Yorkshire, England.

Morritt was interested in magic as a teenager. He taught himself card tricks and some of the rudimentary elements of hypnotism. At that time he was captivated by two American magicians called The Davenport Brothers whose claim-to-fame was an illusion-trick in which they would tie themselves up inside a locked wooden cabinet filled with musical instruments. The instruments would be heard playing while the magicians were trapped and tied in the cabinet. Morritt was motivated by these magicians to build his own cabinet and by the time he was 18 he gave his own public magic show where he performed mind-reading tricks, rabbit tricks and a trick using the cabinet he had made - only his trick did not involve being tied up, but instead was a disappearing act. It was the beginning of his "vanishing illusion." He honed a handful of these illusions and performed them for a few years, but while he truly was a mastermind of these amazing illusions, he was not all that good of a performer.

Houdini was. In the early part of the 1900's, Houdini was already a well known escapologist, but he wanted to do more. He wanted to do magic. Specifically he wanted to create illusions. And he needed to find someone to teach him how to do just that. Morritt was the magician for the job. He needed the money and so he sold Houdini a few of his illusion-tricks.

Houdini learned these illusions and began to perform them in his own shows. One of them was called the Disappearing Donkey - the predecessor to the Vanishing Elephant. The story goes that one night Morritt came to see Houdini's show. Afterward, he came backstage and challenged Houdini to create an even bigger and better illusion. "Make an elephant disappear," he said. Houdini was skeptical at first. He didn't believe it could be done. How could large enough equipment be made? And how could an elephant be brought onto the stage in the first place?

This is where the what comes in. No one is exactly sure how this illusion was created, but most experts agree that it was probably achieved by using a mirror. Remember Jennie, the 8 foot tall, 6000 pound Asian elephant? She was brought on stage and led into a huge box on wheels. Her trainer would hide her behind a huge mirror that ran diagonally from one corner of the box - the one nearest to the audience - to the middle of the doors at the back of the box. So when the doors were opened again, it appeared that the box was empty. The audience thought they were looking at an empty box. But - they were really only looking at one half of the box, and its reflection.

Although it took a while for Houdini to perfect this illusion - his first attempts were clumsy and rather transparent - he eventually did, and became famous for vanishing an elephant.

Reviewed by Tamara Smith

This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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