November 2, 2010

The Magician's Elephant

Kate DiCamillo is the real deal.  You know this, of course, but I'm just now catching up with middle grade reading and am pleased to find she's as good as I've heard.  I'm reading Tale of Despereaux aloud to my daughter and one of my classes and decided to read her new one as well.

She clearly has an ear for the well-read phrase.  These are clearly meant to be read aloud and are suited perfectly for the task.

This one is a short fable-like tale that begins in a quite expected way.  A poor orphan boy is sent by his guardian with two coins to buy a small amount of food.  On his way to the street market he runs into a fortune teller's tent.  We are less than surprised to find him giving away his money to hear what this fortune teller has to say.

She says something surprising; something impossible.  But this is the kind of tale that you expect and need impossible things to happen.  This impossibility, or at least extreme improbability and the aching need for it is the exact tone DiCamillo is striking here.  It's all about the longing.

But never fear, Dear Readers, there is always light, however distant, for the longing characters in this story.  This is most obviously represented by the magician of the title.  After mistakenly and surprisingly conjuring an elephant that accidentally injures someone, he is alone and forlorn in a cold prison cell.  The only light in his life is one star he can see most nights.  He longs to share the just the sight of the star with...someone.  Anyone.

So we have many characters who are longing for something, including an out-of-place elephant, and a boy who must take the steps needed to put these pieces and people together in the right combination.

In real life, I detest so-called fortune-tellers and the belief in any kind of real (as opposed to wonderfully tricksterish) magic.  But in stories?  Like this one?  I'm all for them.  There's nothing better to throw our needs and wants into sharp relief and DiCamillo does this masterfully.  It's beautifully dark, but softly lit as well.  The darkness and the light imbue the story but also come from within.

A good companion tale to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, actually.

Now I'll review Despereaux later, but that one has a pace and a lightness that anyone would enjoy.  This is more somber and the payoff may seem meager to some.  I recommend it but realize that everyone might not embrace it as much as they have her other stories.  Only time will tell.  Well told, though, well told indeed.