Readers could be forgiven for approaching Paul Chambers’ Jumbo: This Being the True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World with a degree of caution. A whole book about a circus elephant who died in 1885? Could be seriously sentimental. Could be a kitchy freak show. Could be as flat as yesterday’s cotton candy. In fact, it is none of the above. Clear-eyed, carefully researched, and crisply written, Chambers’ book explores the surprisingly compelling life story of the African elephant whose name would become synonymous with “extra-extra-large” and whose saga would inspire a classic Disney movie about a flying pachyderm. From Jumbo’s brutal capture in Sudan (his mother is killed trying to protect him) to his arduous journey to England (via France), where he become a crowd-pleaser at London Zoo, to his controversial purchase by Phineas T. Barnum and all-too-brief turn as the star of the showman’s three-ring extravaganza, the elephant’s biography provides a window into the culture and times in which he found fame. There’s heartbreak. There’s drama. And there’s also the sad tale of Jumbo’s keeper, Matthew Scott, a man so devoted that he eschewed human company in order to spend nearly all his time beside his 11-foot-tall, 6-ton best friend, offering comfort and guidance — and even sharing the occasional bottle of booze. During his lifetime Jumbo delighted the masses. And even now, more than 100 years after his death, you’d need a pretty thick skin to resist his charms. –
About the Writer
Amy Reiter, a former editor and senior writer for Salon, has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Glamour, Marie Claire, Wine Spectator, and American Journalism Review, among other publications.