Review - The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr


(Bottom left - Canva. Bottom right - Paul Nettleton.)

Extract -
'You're Dandip,' Mr Jameson said at last, pointing at Danny. 'An Indian prince orphaned as a baby, whose only friend was an elephant cub. But you're torn apart when he's brought to England. You follow him and ... and you're reunited at the Wormwell's auction. Just as Marharajah's being sold. It's a bloomin' miracle. Now you're both goin' to Belle Vue to make your home together.'
He pulled a cigar from his jacket. 'What a story! The newspapers will love it. And so will the payin' public. It'll explain everythin'. You're a foreigner. You've got no English. It's a touch of genius, even if I do say it meself.'
Dannny struggled to think. Surely no one could possibly believe such nonsense?
(The Elephant Thief, Jane Kerr, P62.) 

Plucked from the Edinburgh slums, Danny might have found his lucky day when he is caught pickpocketing by menagerist Mr Jameson. With gang leader Scatcherd on his trail, Danny is in need of a disguise and a way out of Edinburgh. This is just what Jameson is offering, and so Danny stars as Prince Dandip of Dehli and leads the way in the Great Elephant Race.

The elephant, Maharajah, came from the sale of Wormwood’s stock. Wormwood was a menagerist who died in mysterious circumstances, leaving a trail of debt behind him. Ever the publicist, when his new elephant destroys a train carriage, Jameson declares Maharajah will walk from Edinburgh to Manchester. Bitter about his failed bid for Maharajah, rival menagerist Albright offers Jameson a wager. Both men stake the entire contents of their menageries on Marharajah reaching Manchester within ten days.

If Dickens had written about an elephant race, his story would have looked a little like this. Danny is thrown into the centre of a cast of flamboyant characters, unable to trust in anybody’s motives. Will Albright play fair? What would Jameson not do for publicity? Why did carriage driver Crimple frame Danny for theft? Caught in the middle are boy and elephant. Danny is afraid he will have to return to the streets where Scatcherd makes the rules. There are also those who would rather see Marharajah dead than alive…

The relationship between Danny and Marharajah is particularly touching. Both bare scars of past abuse. In the elephant, Danny finds somebody to relate to, and somebody who cares about his welfare – the first time anybody has done so in Danny’s memory. The treatment of both animals and children in Victorian England is addressed through the different ideas of Jameson and Albright – Jameson is a flawed character, but by the standards of the time, he looks after both animals and workers. The question which hangs over the narrative is how will Jameson behave towards both when they are no longer his star attraction?

Danny cannot imagine how people will fall for the story of Prince Dandip, but is told confidently by Jameson that people see what they want to see. This raised some interesting questions about identity. How far is identity based on what people want to see, and how far is it based on what we choose to show? With reporter Alfred Kibble following their progress, Danny wonders what will happen when the world sees through the hair dye and silk turban.  Maharajah too, is not all he seems. Who will learn the elephant’s secrets first?

Prejudice and preconceptions are also explored. Danny appears to be of non-British origin, although he does not remember his parents. Again, Jameson is an interesting character – he will not tolerate the people who would refuse to interact with Danny, yet he also invents the story of ‘Prince Dandip’. Danny’s friend Hetty, too, fights against preconceived ideas about what a middle class girl should do.

This is a great stand-alone story, and it is good to see a Middle Grade novel set between Scotland and Northern England. There is an under-representation in this area, particularly in books which move away from the ‘grim North’ stereotype. The inspiration from the story came from real events – an elephant really did destroy a train carriage in Edinburgh, and a menagerist really did generate publicity by walking the elephant to Manchester in ten days. I would be interested to know how close to the real journey the fictional one came. Living in Cumbria, I was tickled to see The George Hotel in Penrith mentioned, and I hope to take my copy of The Elephant Thief to some of the locations mentioned. Watch this space! 

  • ISBN: 9781910655757
  • Chicken House
  • Page Count: 322

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