This is the fourth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. In writing about Elephant Run by Roland Smith, I’m stretching that profile a bit: the main character here is English. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Mike Baginski, recently retired from a longtime teaching career at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, Vermont.
Elephant Run has an admirable intent: soon after the outbreak of World War II, send readers into a village deep in the interior of British-colonial Burma with Nick Freestone, the teenage son of an Englishman who oversees this community of elephant drivers, or mahouts, from Hawk’s Nest, a grand home built by his late father, the indomitable Sergeant Major. When Japanese troops occupy the village and make Hawk’s Nest their headquarters, Nick becomes a prisoner and a forced laborer, while his father is taken off to an unsure fate.
The plot, as they say, thickens. There’s a a haiku-composing Japanese sergeant, and a growing conflict of loyalties among the elephant drivers who had hoped the invaders would be their liberators, but turn out to be brutal on a new level. There’s Mya, a very attractive Burman girl who’s being menaced by a mahout allied with the Japanese; and there’s Hilltop, a mysterious, elderly Buddhist monk whom all the villagers revere and, for that reason, the occupiers can’t touch. And within Hawk’s Nest, it turns out there’s a secret catacomb of passageways, listening posts, and food and armament stores.
Will Nick survive? Can he protect the beautiful Mya, and somehow find and rescue his dad? And what about Hannibal, the dangerous rogue elephant who’s been hidden on a tangled island from the occupiers?
It’s an inventive plot, a good story, but somehow there’s a flatness. The characters don’t feel three-dimensional. The storytelling is mechanical, and the dialogue is, too. The writing often feels rushed, and the landscape and culture of the interior, which should be fascinating, never really come to life.
I’m not a critic and I don’t like critiquing another author, especially one who’s taken on a gutsy adventure like taking us all at once into traditional mahout culture, the last violent throes of the colonial era, and a teenager’s experience of a rarely chronicled theater of the Second World War. For all those reasons, Elephant Run is worth reading. I just wish — sorry, Roland — that I had enjoyed it more.