The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

February 22, 2011 at 14:40 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , )


What if Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had shaped stories where the villains were sadder, and where the misbegotten and lost were hopeful, and where the heroes were broken? What if Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince had possessed a gentle and loving heart instead of one of gold? What if Hans Christian Andersen had been more occupied with forgiveness than retribution? The result might be something like this: a story told with all the passion, the skill and the delicate wonder of a classic fairy tale, but told with a singsong lilt and a warmth and softness that simply doesn’t care for pointed fingers of satire or the harshness of pyrrhic victories.

The use of the fortune-teller as the story’s catalyst was perhaps a little uncomfortable, and skirted alongside the sort of loud, clanging story about carnivals and dark things in dark places that this story rose clearly above. This theme (and the magical theme that ran throughout) were not carried as far as the sort of dark conclusions at which they hinted. Indeed, DiCamillo’s touching willingness to marry her pseudo-villain to a toothless crone who loves him, or leave the Duchess crippled and Lutz both nursed lovingly and yet feverish and delirious showed a tendency to buck against convention.

A story like this might stand wide open accusations of being a cloying and crass ugly thing, suitable only for the very young. It might well have become that, if not for DiCamillo’s considerable skill, and ability to croon her story so that her prose becomes almost poetic, soft and sympathetic, matter-of-fact in its sadness and consoling in tragedy, never crowing in exultation, but speaking with constancy and kindness. It is very fitting that this story has a happy ending. It was heartbreaking even so.



  1. Book Reviews at BookRack said,

    You sure reviewed an interesting one’s I hadn’t noticed before! Thank you 🙂

  2. firstprincesspatronsaint said,

    I recently read this book and thought very much of its prose—some lines made me breathless, and that doesn’t happen to me very often. Glad you liked it for some of the same reasons.—Tineke

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      In rereading it, I might have rated it even higher. Breathless is certainly the word for it. There is something very satisfying and profound about writers who state things so baldly and shamelessly as Kate DiCamillo does. I can think of very few authors (of books, films, poetry or music) who are so straightforward, but those who are, are all cherished favourites.

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