Friday, 16 May 2014

The Child's Elephant, by Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Bat lives in the village of Jambula. He spends his days herding his small band of cattle, running errands for his grandmother, playing wrestling games with the other village boys in the evenings. One day, out with his cattle, he and his friend Muka find Meya, a baby elephant, orphaned by poachers, collapsed and starving in the scrub.

Meya is welcomed into village life, for elephants are considered a sacred animal - close to humans in the way they form friendships and families and loyalties, but close to the spirits too – and she is everything to Bat: constant friend and companion, as he helps raise her and feed her and she joins him out on the savannah with his cattle. It’s a hard life, but an idyllic sort of one too, with few concerns but the next day and the turning of the seasons.

Except soon rumours of a terrible child army reach the village, tales of refugees and roads not being safe to travel. And when Lobo returns to Jambula, the cruel son of the medicine woman, a boy who knows only how to boast and bully, he is fascinated and intrigued by Bat and his relationship with Meya. Does he want Meya for his own? What will he do if he can’t get her?

The Child’s Elephant is a story of friendship and survival and hope. Bat and Muka’s world will soon be turned upside down, their minds and bodies pushed to the very limits, but friendship, a belief in what is right and wrong and – most importantly – hope, will help them to survive.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston seamlessly combines a tale of quiet village life, an edgy co-existence with African wildlife, with the brutality and fear and the ravaging of communities exhorted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as, from a caring wildlife tale we are transported with Bat and Muka to a brutal training camp. Here, Bat is coerced into a place where he must betray those whom he holds most dear, the terrible choice of Muka or Meya. How can he choose? What can he do? And when they make a run for it, it seems that all will be against them: the people, the land, the season. Will they ever find home again? What will they have to sacrifice along the way?

This a very accomplished young novel, the balance between the wildlife and the African plains and the all-encompassing forests of the army perfectly rendered. There are some potentially difficult scenes: Bat’s encounter with the poachers in the opening chapter, his and Muka’s capture by the rebels, the brutality of the camp, their friend Gulu’s tale of his own capture. But Campbell-Johnston writes them with the utmost care, keeping me on the edge of my seat, but without unnecessary angst. And she summons Bat’s life to the page wonderfully: the sights and sounds of the land around him, the link between him and Meya, his cares and concerns, the changes that are wrought upon him.

Several years are covered during the book, both quiet ones and difficult ones, but there’s not a dull moment and everything that takes place does so for a reason; everything will be called upon again in later chapters, will take Bat and Muka on their journey forward into adulthood. It is sad and wonderful all at once, but their care for the world around them and their friendships with Meya, with Gulu, and with each other, will see them through and into the future. Suitable for middle grade readers, I can see why The Child’s Elephant has been chosen for the 2014 Carnegie Medal shortlist; it would be a good step up particularly for anyone who likes Michael Morpurgo, or Lauren St John’s African Adventures series.

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