by Michael Morpurgo
195 pages to add another face to the story we know about World War II
An Elephant in the Garden shares an unusual story of war. At the same time that it is devastating and tragic, it is uplifting and hopeful. Lizzie is old and frail; so fragile that she has been moved into a nursing home. The narrator of the book is a nurse there. She is also a single mom, so on weekends, snow days or days when she takes on extra hours her son Karl comes too. If the weather is right, he brings his friends and they play in the snow outside the home – often to the great delight of the people living there. It was on one of those days that Karl met Lizzie. They formed a special bond and each day when he came he would sit by her and listen to her stories. His mom questioned them and wondered if they were just the addled ramblings of the elderly. Karl doesn’t think that is true because she is so sure and certain as she speaks.
February 13th is the anniversary of an event that shaped Lizzie’s life and with Karl there on that day she is compelled to tell the tale, her tale about what happened when an elephant came to live in her garden in Dresden Germany. Lizzie starts at the beginning – explaining how her Papi was off on the Russian front and with most of the men gone how the women had done their work. She explained that Mutti (her mother) had begun to care for the animals in the zoo. She had seen an elephant born and had been asked to name her. She chose Marlene, after the actor and singer popular in the day. When Marlene’s mother died Mutti was the only one who could comfort her. As bombing threats became certainty, plans were made to kill the larger, more dangerous animals so they would not become a threat to those who survived. Mutti could not bear the thought of gentle, sweet, baby Marlene being shot and so she worked out a deal with Herr Direktor. And that is how Marlene became a member of Lizzie’s family, residing with them in the garden.
All was fine (well, as fine as living day to day surrounded by the threats of war can be) for a time, but then the Allies bombed Dresden. Wave after wave of bombs fell. Already agitated, a frightened Marlene ran and the family – Mutti, Lizzie and her little brother, Karli followed afraid of being separated. Together they joined the long line of refugees fleeing the city, moving out into the country and to the relative safety of being behind enemy lines. They chose to move toward the Allies. Lizzie’s family could not move with the others – they were not like the others. They had an elephant in their family- an elephant who leads them into and through incredible events as they travel toward safety, together.
An Elephant in the Garden is inspired by a true story, and while is does not shy away from the harshness of war there is no fighting and killing in this tale. This book shares the plight of the people who are innocently caught in the crossfire of war. It shares how those people feel about the war around them and recounts how little acts of kindness and moments of sheer terror shape lives. I came to love Lizzie’s family and to marvel at their courage and fierce commitment to what is right. I was amazed by what they did and how stayed together through turmoil with care and respect. You must read An Elephant in the Garden to find out what happens to Marlene and her family, to discover how Lizzie is here to share her story and gain greater understanding of the long reaching affects of war.
This book reminded me of Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya ( a picture book I have never been able to successfully read out loud. I just can’t) and Kelly Milner Halls recent Saving the Baghdad Zoo. These book also share how zoos and animals suffer the consequences of war.