By Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
Candlewick Press, 2009
$16.99, ages 9-12, 201 pages
A 10-year-old orphan has every reason to feel despair, but chooses to believe that the impossible can happen in this atmospheric fable by Newberry Medalist DiCamillo that will have readers asking themselves "What if? Why not? Could it possibly be?" long after the book is over.
Peter Augustus Duchene is training to become a soldier, and has no one to love or love him back. His father died on the battlefield, his mother died right afterward giving birth to his sister Adelle and he's been told by his guardian Vilna Lutz, a stern old soldier trapped in his own misery, that Adelle was stillborn. His few memories are of the promise he made to his dying mother to watch over Adelle and an afternoon when his late father tenderly tossed him in the air and caught him.
Longing to be held like that again and to have someone to hold, Peter wonders if Lutz could be wrong, and is drawn to a fortuneteller who promises for one florit to answer the most profound questions of the heart. Peter only has the coin Lutz entrusted to him to buy fish and bread, but he cannot resist finding the truth and spends it to have his palm read. The fortuneteller divines that Adelle is alive, but that Peter must follow an elephant to find her, which seems like a ridiculous suggestion as no elephants have ever lived in the city of Baltese, now in the throes of a particularly gloomy winter.
Though Peter fears he's being played the fool, the fortuneteller tells him that impossible things can happen -- "the truth is always changing," she says -- and as Peter leaves the tent he hears a beggar singing about how things are not what they seem -- and indeed they are not. That night an aging magician trying to recoup his reputation causes an elephant to crash through the ceiling of the local opera house. The elephant, as confused as everyone else, lands in the lap of noblewoman Madam LaVaughn and crushes her legs.
The magician contends he only meant to conjure up a bouquet of lilies, but LaVaughn, who is now confined to a wheelchair, is consumed by bitterness. She asks that the magician be locked away in jail and visits him daily awaiting his remorse, yet the magician cannot summon regret. No one expected him to do anything special that night and the elephant is indisputable evidence that he did something amazing with his life. LaVaughn's manservant and advisor sees the futility of their exchange and calls an end to it, leaving the magician alone in the cell, his only glimmer of hope, a bright star behind the clouds.
When Peter overhears a fishmonger recounting the cataclysmic event at the opera house, he realizes that if an elephant could fall from the sky, Lutz might have lied. That night Peter dreams he sees a golden light in a field of wheat and opens a door to find a baby crying. The very same night, less than five blocks away at the Orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Light, a 6-year-old girl dreams of an elephant knocking at the orphanage door but no one answering.
The next day Peter learns that the elephant has been moved to the ballroom of a countess, who wants to use the elephant's fame to make her the talk of the town. He calls on good friend Leo Matienne, a kind policeman living with his wife in the apartment below, to help him find a way to see her. Leo, a poet at heart who asks the questions "What if?" "Why not?" and "Could it Possibly Be?" when others say things are hopeless, soon learns that the elephant will be on display for public viewing and runs to Peter with the good news. Peter is so happy that his face fills with light even though the sun is behind clouds.
But when Peter gets his chances to ask the elephant about Adelle, he sees such despair in her eyes that he forgets why he came to see her. He's felt that kind of loneliness before and promises to find a way to get her back home, though he has no idea how to keep his word. Then a wondrous thought occurs to him. Peter will ask Leo to take him to the magician's prison cell and the magician will again perform an impossible feat, this time sending the elephant home. Though the magician agrees to try to undo his magic, he needs Peter and Leo to bring him the elephant as well as the aggrieved LaVaughn, all of which seem impossible, until they realize that if they try, it may just be enough to make all of their dreams come true.
DiCamillo's story is so extraordinary that when you reach the end of the book you can't help but wonder if anything is possible, while Tanaka's soft, muted illustrations beautifully echo the book's airy, mystical mood.
From the very first chapter, you sense that DiCamillo labored over every sentence, as each thought is so beautifully realized, and by mid-book, you find yourself pausing to marvel at her ability to tie together so many different lives and story lines. As Peter searches for the truth, he comes in contact with secondary characters who face their own struggles to find love, find atonement or believe in something that seems far out of their reach. You also find yourself flipping back to previous pages to reflect on DiCamillo's use of symbolism, which enriches every step of the story. Among them, the dark clouds that have backed up over Baltese, echoing a pervasive sense of despair, and the images of light in Peter's dream, in the magician's eyes, on Peter's face that suggest the promise of good things to come. There is also the gentle, forgiving snow that at the end of the book allows characters to find their way out of their malaise. This is one of those very special books that stays with you long after you close it and inspires you to want more out of your life, or at least make the attempt.