What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Twelve-year-old Nandu is an assistant elephant driver at the king’s stable in the Borderlands of Nepal. When the government threatens to close the stable, he decides to find a way to save his community’s livelihood and his adopted family from hardship. The solution forces Nandu to leave his jungle haven and enter the urban world, where he and the reader learn about a wider cross-section of Nepalese culture. Although exotic at first glance, Nepal turns out to be a multicultural and hierarchical society that reflects life in the United States on many levels.
“My mother is an elephant and my father is an old man with one arm. Strange, I know, but true.” The novel begins with an intriguing hook that introduces Nandu as a foundling who has been raised by a hodgepodge of caring people and creatures. As an outsider, he has a heightened need to belong and struggles to find his place in the community. Likewise, many middle-graders will relate to this social challenge from their own efforts to fit in at school. And Nandu’s quest to discover his past origins and establish an identity is both universal and captivating.
Beautifully written, Eric Dinerstein’s story is as textured and absorbing as its Nepalese setting. The hero’s relationships are unconventional and touching, giving the reader pause to reconsider and appreciate one’s own. The novel goes on to examine our interconnection with the natural world in a nuanced way that takes into consideration economic demands along with the urgent necessity of biological survival. The ethical questions posed, however, are deftly integrated into the lives of these lovable characters and are explored through an action-packed plot that keeps the pages turning.
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All the best, Chris Brandon Whitaker!