Hope: The Elephant in the Room?

magician's elephant

“But what if?

Why not?

Could it be?”

Kate DiCamillo’s novel about The Magician’s Elephant is so beautifully written… the only way this story would not pull at your heartstrings is if you genuinely do not have any. Each character has their own story, each one searches for their own happiness, and each one is in desperate need of hope.

At first, the story seemed like a mystery to me — with Peter asking the fortune teller about his sister… does she live? And the fortuneteller’s cryptic answer, “You must follow the elephant… she will lead you there.” But as the characters’ stories unfold, and their deepest desires are exposed to the reader, it’s not so much a mystery as a quest to believe the impossible can come true even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

To the town of Baltese, this elephant that drops out of thin air is a symbol of the impossible coming true. Yet, to the magician, it is but an act of desperation: “Yes, the magician had intended to conjure lilies. But standing on the stage of the Bliffendorf Opera House, before an audience that was indifferent to whatever small diversion he might perform and was waiting only for him to exit and for the real magic to begin, the magician was struck suddenly, and quite forcibly, with the notion that he had wasted his life.” Desperate times may call for desperate measures, after all. Don’t we all wish we could conjure up an elephant when we’re in need of a little appreciation? The magician’s predicament feels quite personal to me — there is such a disconnect between what he intends, and what he actually accomplishes. Though he intends to conjure lilies, his inability to follow through with his intensions haunts him for most of the story… until he can set it right again. But for those of us without magic, how do we set things right again?

The other characters also have conflicting views of this magical elephant: to Peter, “an elephant was a ridiculous answer to any question — but a particularly ridiculous answer to a question posed by the human heart.” To the countess Quintet, the elephant is a status symbol and owning the most coveted animal in town, a reason to have extravagant parties. To Leo Matienne, the elephant is a good omen, but his wife Gloria cannot be so optimistic: “My heart has been broken too many times, and it cannot bear to hear your foolish questions.” Yet, there they were… “what if? … why not? … could it be?” The incessant questions of a hopeful heart — who can silence them? Isn’t that why we want to believe in hope? Isn’t it why we want to believe in magic?

“‘But that is impossible,’ said Peter.

‘Magic is always impossible,’ said the magician. ‘It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic.'”

Simple enough, right?

Meanwhile, the elephant herself… she suffers so. “It was hard for her to breathe; the world seemed too small. […] Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved.” She is out of place. She is unhappy. She is desperate to make her reality a different one. But she is the elephant in the room — locked away so that the town can line up to see the magician’s greatest accomplishment — only Peter truly sees her. Just as he knows how important family is to him, he can see deep within her soul that she needs to go back to her family as well.

In the end, it’s not so much that everyone is looking for hope… but that everyone is hoping for love. The magician needs admiration, Leo Matienne and Gloria need a child, Peter needs his sister, the elephant needs to go home… the town needs a reminder: “It is a bad thing to have love and nowhere to put it.”

And that’s the magic… how do we channel our love, our passion, and our happiness into a worthwhile endeavor? I’m not sure… it seems like it’s impossible all around and in between.

… But what if?

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Filed under Book Review, fable

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