Fiction, coming of age adventure.
Whistling for the Elephants by Sandi Toksvig
There are two basic types of animal in Nature’s Kingdom. The first, like lions and turtles, produce many offspring and simply hope that some will survive. The second, like elephants and people, produce one or two at long intervals and make great efforts to rear them. My mother belonged in a class of her own. She produced two at short intervals and made no effort to rear them whatsoever. Thus Dorothy, aged ten, finds herself making her own way inSassaspaneck,New Yorkin 1968. Her English father, who never talks above a whisper due to a youthful injury with a cricket ball, has tucked her and her mother away where the potential for embarrassment can be limited. All the other children in town have gone to camp, so Dorothy must provide her own entertainment. She comes across a small, faded zoo on the outskirts of town, and as she begins to get to know the eccentric group of women who live there she begins to discover a world way beyond anything she has experienced so far
This is a book about Dorothy who is ten years old and moves with her family to an American small town. In her own words she is ‘too much nearly a boy’ and dresses strangely by choice. The family consist of a mother who is more or less detached from reality and a father who talks in a whisper because of an old cricket injury, and never seems to answer a straight question. Dorothy’s brother, Charles, is sent off to boarding school and Dorothy is left to her own devices for most of the time. There are a lot of underlying tensions in her family and in the new town that she only nearly understands, and she ends up helping, with the women of the town, to save a small zoo that is endangered by local politics.
The book is brilliantly written and very funny in parts. To try to make sense of a dysfunctional family as a ten year old, and to stumble on a worthy cause of saving a zoo, is heady stuff for Dorothy. There is a hilarious drunken scene where at a neighbourhood barbeque the men decide to fix a bit of the pluming under the floorboards of the kitchen, after having been to put out a fire as the volunteer fire brigade, and then the pet dog of the household dies in the hallway and is discovered by Dorothy who has to break the bad news.
There are beautiful word pictures, in describing a young man who is helping at the zoo, who is giving the women fits of the vapours,
‘He walked led entirely by his hips, a loose open walk which advertised all he had to offer.’
There is a lot discussion about the animal and their emotions, whether they mourn or feel love. Mrs. Torchinsky, wife of the town undertaker says, ‘I can’t worry about this, I can’t spend Sunday mornings wondering if the chicken on my table was depressed. How could you tell anyway? Bad posture?
The ending of the book is very satisfying with the bad men getting their comeuppance and the elephants wining everyone’s hearts.
I loved this book, the sad bits and the funny bits and the drama, but most of all I liked Dorothy for her individuality and for trying to win the day with an ancient military strategy.
Must read more of this writers books.