Jumbo

By PAUL CHAMBERS

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. -