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The Elephant Keeper
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The Elephant Keeper

3.5 21
by Christopher Nicholson

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“Intensely moving. [An] exceptional novel.”
Boston Globe


A poignant and magical story set in eighteenth-century England, The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson is the tale of two baby elephants and the young man who accidentally finds himself their guardian. Every reader who was enchanted by Sara Gruen’s


“Intensely moving. [An] exceptional novel.”
Boston Globe


A poignant and magical story set in eighteenth-century England, The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson is the tale of two baby elephants and the young man who accidentally finds himself their guardian. Every reader who was enchanted by Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants or enthralled by When Elephants Weep will adore Nicholson’s The Elephant Keeper—a masterful blending of historical novel, coming-of-age tale, animal adventure, and love story.

Editorial Reviews

The Independent(UK)
"[Nicholson’s] lush new novel of the late 18th century…Jenny is a magnificent character…She gives the book its weight, in every sense…the sheer richness of the story’s texture. The Elephant Keeper evokes 18th-century village and estate life beautifully, and is stuffed with fascinating data from medical and veterinary history."
Time Magazines Literary Supplement (London)
"Christopher Nicholson traces the arc of Tom and Jenny’s surprising journey with delicate empathy. He confronts sex, violence and power, but he does not shy away from less dramatic themes, such as gentleness and companionship, which help to make The Elephant Keeper such a rewarding book."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An extended meditation on human needs and how our choices shape a better or lesser existance. [A] poignant, heartfelt novel.”
Boston Globe
“Nicholson’s light touch and sly humor ensures that the animal-human dialogue is entirely natural and intensely moving. (An) exceptional novel.”
The Independent (UK)
“[Nicholson’s] lush new novel of the late 18th century…Jenny is a magnificent character…She gives the book its weight, in every sense…the sheer richness of the story’s texture. The Elephant Keeper evokes 18th-century village and estate life beautifully, and is stuffed with fascinating data from medical and veterinary history.”
“[A] remarkable debut. An unforgettable picture of an elephant/human relationship so close that, as the elephant learns to think like a human, she teaches her human to think like an elephant. This is one of the best books of the year.”
Deseret Morning News
“This elegant story is not just for animal lovers. In it, readers see how the bonds of friendship go beyond time, age or species. Definitely one to put on your “to read” list.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“While deftly portraying 18th century village and estate life as well as the dark, fog-bound streets of London, The Elephant Keeper examines themes such as human choice, fate and the cruel British class system.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Christopher Nicholson traces the arc of Tom and Jenny’s surprising journey with delicate empathy. He confronts sex, violence and power, but he does not shy away from less dramatic themes, such as gentleness and companionship, which help to make The Elephant Keeper such a rewarding book.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“A sensitive boy suddenly becomes groom to Timothy and Jenny, the first pair of young elephants brought into England in the 1700s. This informative, engaging and moving book has clear insight into the impact of poverty, alienation and isolation that is as relevant today as it was then.”
Financial Times
“A pleasingly ambling tale.”
Daily Mail (London)
“A captivatingly original novel…This is a wonderful feat of story-telling, remarkable for its ability to wrench your heart without resorting to easy sentimentality.”
“An endearing account of a virtually telepathic relationship between man and animal.”
Washington Post
“THE ELEPHANT KEEPER is a strange tour of late 18th-century England, a natural history of elephants and the story of a most unusual friendship, all told with a touch of the otherworldly elegance and wit of Babar.”
The Guardian
“Endearing...Like the elephant at its centre, Nicholson’s book is gentle, profound and sweet-natured.”
Ron Charles
Christopher Nicholson's enchanting first novel is full of the mingled affection and tragedy that have long marked our relationship with the world's largest terrestrial animals. The Elephant Keeper is a strange tour of late 18th-century England, a natural history of elephants and the story of a most unusual friendship, all told with a touch of the otherworldly elegance and wit of Babar…What's evident in every chapter…is Nicholson's attention to these animals, their incongruous heft and grace, the dexterous twist and twirl of their trunks, their haunting sense of wisdom and forbearance. It's no accident that Tom refers to Gulliver's Travels several times. Like Swift's intrepid adventurer, Tom has been won over by an expression of humanity greater than humankind's. You may be, too.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

A tale by BBC radio documentary producer Nicholson about a man and an elephant canters along at a delightful pace, from the first meeting between the two on the quay in Bristol, England. In 1773, Tom Page writes a history of the well-trained elephant, Jenny, and his life as a "humble groom" for the Harrington family's elephants that he learned to care for as a teenager. Lizzy Tindall, a bold young maid, endears herself to Tom and his elephants, but when the female, Jenny, is sold, Lizzy urges Tom to stay-that Jenny is "only an Elephant." Tom, outraged, chooses to go with Jenny. The animal and keeper communicate, converse even, in their quarters in the elephant house. The pair subsequently move from master to master, ending up in a miserable menagerie in London. "Befogged and befuddled" in the cruel city, an aged Tom strays from Jenny only to discover that his respect for the tenderhearted elephant is singular. Nicholson's elegiac alternate endings leave only the memory of their lasting bond-the elephant's legendary ability to "never forget" is finally ours. (Aug.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Faux-picaresque debut novel about a boy and his elephant. In 1766, Tom, a stable boy, is put in charge of two elephants purchased by the squire of an English country estate. Tom quickly learns to communicate with and train these intelligent animals without resorting to cruelty. The meticulously detailed, occasionally tedious first third of the text describes this process, as well as such watershed events in Tom's life as the death of his father and a tryst with his sweetheart, housemaid Lizzy. Male elephant Timothy's hormones rage out of control, and he is sold to an earl. Jenny, the female elephant, becomes Tom's partner in interior monologue as Tom imagines she is conversing with him. When eccentric aristocrat Lord Bidborough purchases Jenny, Tom is admitted to the fantastic park, complete with obelisk, manmade waterfall and Hermit-for-hire, which this gouty noble polymath has created on his vast fiefdom. Lord Bidborough, an animal lover, respects Tom and Jenny and even asks Tom to pen "the History of the Elephant," whence the pretext for the novel. This idyll is shattered when Mr. Singleton, Bidborough's son and heir, returns from his dissipated life abroad. An arrogant, nasty roue, Singleton torments Jenny, rapes a housemaid and is about to violate a young village girl when Tom and Jenny intervene. Singleton lashes out at Tom, breaking his nose and permanently disfiguring him; Jenny exacts revenge. Singleton's murderer is never found, but shortly after the incident, Lord Bidborough, rendered mute and incapacitated by a stroke, dies, and Tom and Jenny are on the road again. Twenty years later, Tom is now Jenny's keeper at a London "Menagery"/ amusement arcade, where Jenny is beingpassed off as more than 100 years old by the flimflam zookeeper. From there, Nicholson experiments with several possible resolutions, only to opt for an uplifting but inconclusive ending. The 18th-century diction is convincing, but too much elephant lore, though engrossing in its own right, slows the pace. Agent: Isobel Dixon/Blake Friedmann

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Elephant Keeper

Chapter One

April 24th

It was six days ago that Lord Bidborough, accompanied by another gentleman, came to the Elephant House and, after making the usual inquiries about my charge, who was, at that moment, quietly eating hay, asked whether it was true that, as he had heard, I was able to read. I replied that my parents had put in my way various books, which I had sat over, piecing together the letters until they began to make sense; whereupon his Lordship asked me which books, and I mentioned the Bible, Pilgrim"s Progress, and Gulliver"s Travels. This last work, I said, had so fascinated and enthralled me that I had formed the ambition of taking ship and travelling to remote parts of the globe in search of wealth and adventure, an ambition from which my father had dissuaded me, pointing out the dangers that lay in such travel, and recommending me to content myself with my lot. Lord Bidborough listened carefully. "Your father would appear to have been wise," he said, smiling. "Many lives have been squandered in the pursuit of adventure. Your parents could read and write, too?"—"They could read, my Lord, but scarcely write a word."—"But did you learn to write?" I replied that I had been taught to write at the village school, and had mastered the art tolerably well, although I had not written for a long time.

At this the other gentleman, whose name was Dr. Goldsmith, said: "Lord Bidborough reliably informs me that you are able to speak Elephant." I explained, cautiously, that I could communicate with the Elephant by making certain signs and sounds, and that I could also interpret certain signs and sounds made by theElephant; but none of this was any more than a man might do with his most favoured hounds. Just as a hound would obey if told to beg, or sit, or leave the room, so, in the same fashion, I could command the Elephant to kneel down, to sit, to coil up her trunk, and to perform other tasks. Dr. Goldsmith here gave a glance to Lord Bidborough, who said, "Tom, Dr. Goldsmith would be most interested to see a demonstration of this communication at work." I readily complied, leading the Elephant out of her stable into the yard, where I bid her shake hands with Dr. Goldsmith; that is, to shake his hand with her trunk, which she proceeded to do, to his astonishment. At a word she knelt, very slowly and carefully, as is the way with Elephants, whereupon I made a sign with my hands and she rolled gently on to her side.

Lord Bidborough asked, if this was indeed not a form of language. Dr. Goldsmith answered, that it was certainly remarkable: "But," he went on, "is not the Elephant known as the half-reasoning Animal?" They discussed this for some minutes while the Elephant lay on the floor of the yard, her long-fringed eyes watching me for the signal to rise. From the slight twitches of her trunk I could tell that her patience was being tested, but she remained still and docile.

Presently the two gentlemen walked round her body and inspected her, poking her with their sticks and making further inquiries of her diet and her age. Dr. Goldsmith, who had pulled out a pocket-book and lead pencil, took notes on my answers. He was intrigued, as both ladies and gentlemen always are, with her trunk, which he called her probbossis. Having crouched to touch it, which he did with a certain caution, he asked me to explain its use and purpose. I replied that it had a double purpose: not only was it a breathing tube, like a human nose, in which respect it was highly sensitive, but also it served as an arm and a hand, in which respect it was both prodigiously strong, capable of tearing branches off trees and hurling rocks, and highly dextrous, enabling the Elephant to untie knotted ropes or to pick up objects as small as a piece of straw, or a pin, at will. I asked Dr. Goldsmith to put his pencil on the floor; next, having drawn the Elephant to her feet, I bid her pick it up and return it to him, which she did very courteously, and with a certain gleam of amusement in her eyes. Lord Bidborough gravely remarked that "the male of the human species also possesses an organ with a double purpose."

In order to demonstrate the Elephant"s strength, I offered to command her to lift Dr. Goldsmith into the air, as she has often done in the past with his Lordship"s acquaintances. Though obviously tempted, Dr. Goldsmith was concerned as to the possible dangers, and asked whether I could assure him that he would be perfectly safe. Was it possible that the beast would hurl him to the ground, or tighten her probbossis like a snake so that he would be unable to breathe? I said that I had no qualms whatever on the matter, and that I would stake my life on his safety; however, if he preferred, I would demonstrate by ordering the Elephant to lift me in his stead. Dr. Goldsmith was on the point of accepting my offer, when Lord Bidborough, with an arch smile, asked him if he was afraid. He seemed somewhat stung by this sally.

"Indeed, my Lord, I am not afraid in the least, but when it comes to my own life I generally exercise some prudence—however, in this instance, I am content to trust myself to your Lordship"s guidance. If I should be squeezed to death, my affairs are in order—I am ready to meet my Maker."

So saying he took off his coat and stood arms extended, one arm holding his stick, the other his pencil and paper, while I gave the Elephant her instructions. Dr. Goldsmith is short in height, with a prominent forehead above a face that is deeply lined, and pitted from the Small Pox; and his expression, as the Elephant"s trunk extended itself, coiled round his waist, gripped, and drew him without apparent effort from the ground, was such that Lord Bidborough laughed heartily. "Are you much squeezed?" he called. Dr. Goldsmith, some eight feet in the air, ignored his mirth, instead declaring in an affectedly calm voice that the prospect was d—ned excellent, and that he felt as comfortable as if he had been seated in a great chair; indeed, had he been equipped with a spy-glass or a book, he would have been perfectly content to stay in the coils of the Elephant all afternoon. However, when I asked him whether he would care to be set upon the Elephant"s back, or to be lowered to the ground, he replied that whenever it was convenient he would be most obliged if he could be replaced on terra firma. The Elephant lowered him to the ground and released him from her grip. Dr. Goldsmith was a trifle flushed, but not excessively so, and as I returned to him his coat, he thanked me very much for an experience that he would never forget.

I rewarded the Elephant"s obedience with an apple that I kept in my pocket for such a purpose. Taking it eagerly with the end of her trunk, she swiftly placed it inside the cave of her mouth. Such a reward to an Elephant is as a sweet-meat is to a child.

It was then that Lord Bidborough asked me whether, if he were to supply me with pen, ink, and paper, I would be willing to write a history of the Elephant. He said that no one had ever written such a history before, and that an account describing the animal"s characteristics, behaviour, habits, and intelligence, by someone such as myself, who had intimate knowledge of the creature, would be of immense interest to many important -people in London and elsewhere. Dr. Goldsmith agreed, assuring me that I would be doing a ser-vice to Mankind to write about such a noble beast. I was much surprized and, for a moment, so daunted by the prospect, that I scarcely knew how to reply; at length I said that I feared that I would not have the skill.

"Tom, have no fear," said Lord Bidborough. "It need only be a simple account of particulars. In practice, writing is no different from talking—is that not so, Dr. Goldsmith?"

"Indeed, my Lord, writing is like talking; or, indeed, like riding a horse; once one is in the saddle, it is easy enough. A tap of the whip, and away you go. Of course, as there are good and bad riders, so there are good and bad writers, but everyone has the ability to write, provided he believes in his ability."

The Elephant Keeper. Copyright © by Christopher Nicholson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

A prizewinning radio documentary producer who has worked for the BBC World Service, Christopher Nicholson rode an elephant for the first time at Chitwan National Park in Nepal. He has been interested in natural history his entire life, and many of the programs he produced for the BBC revolved around the connection between animals and humans. Because of a love for the novels of Thomas Hardy, Nicholson and his wife settled in Dorset, England, with their two children.

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Elephant Keeper 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So strange that it must have truth to it. Could not put it down.
JosieKramer More than 1 year ago
I had to wait a couple of days after reading this book to post the review. It has now been three. And I still don't know how I feel about the story. Which doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth. The story itself flows well. You get emotional about the elephants and how they live their daily lives. But for the main character, Tom, I could take him or leave him. There isn't much depth into what he is about, and as the story unravels, even less so. I am at a loss as to what to say about this book. It wasn't horrible and it wasn't great. It was just there. The writing was good (it follows how things were written in the 18th century which is when the story takes place). The story was pretty good, for the most part. This is a book to get if you are into a slow, sad story dealing with the treatment of elephants. It's good. I just wouldn't run out to get it. In the end, it doesn't stand out for me.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1766, the Dover arrives from the East Indies docking in Bristol, England. Rumors spread like an out of control blaze that something special is on board. Though most assume it is a mythological creature, it turns out two young elephants each over twelve feet and the other live cargo like the zebra is at first sight assumed by many as mythological beasts. The affluent patriarch of the Harrington merchant family buys the elephants as a present for his kids. He assigns young teenager Tom Page as the groom of the pachyderms living on his estate. Tom names them Timothy and Jenny. Tom becomes attracted to sassy maid Lizzy Tindall, especially after she is kind to his Jenny. However, when Jenny and Timothy are sold to separate owners, Lizzy tells him ironically to forget Jenny (and Timothy) as she is "only an Elephant", angering Tom. He goes with Jenny though he is saddened by his having to leave Timothy. As the pair moves from one owner to another, he tries to keep up with Timothy's health until Jenny is moved into a hovel in London where Tom deserts her for the highlights of the decadent big city. Eventually, he realizes what he has done and returns to his Jenny; writing her story a few years after they first bonded. This is an excellent refreshing historical tale that uses the uniqueness of an elephant in Georgian England to tell a coming of age tale of loyalty in a violent era in which animal rights are non existent. Jenny is terrific as she is able to communicate her needs and caring for her human groom to Tom (and the reader) even when he deserts her temporarily; Tom understands her as she is his "soulmate" and realizes especially after London that his bond is unbreakable for his Jenny. Harriet Klausner
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
Tom Page is the son of a groom, who instead of taking care of horses, wants the task of taking care of two sickly elephants that have landed on the docks of England in 1766. The Elephant Keeper is the story of the bond between Tom and Jenny (one of the elephants he named) and their life together. He follows Jenny has she is sold to various owners and eventually ends up in a show. Not an action filled novel, but one filled with a detailed look of life in England during that time and the separation of the classes. It is also a story of the love between animal and boy (and does Jenny really talk to Tom or is it in his mind). An intriguing tale that is thought-provoking. The author also provides an alternate ending.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
The Elephant Keeper is the story of a young horse trainer who suddenly finds himself in charge of caring for two young elephants. Its a coming of age story for both the trainer and the elephants and the commonalities and contrasts make for an interesting twist. As the story progress the trainer develops a deep relationship with the female elephant and ultimately is able to communicate with her. I thought this part of the story was well written and I was able to suspend belief and enjoy their intimate connection. The book follows the pair through good fortune and bad as they are sold to various owners. Unfortunately, the book ends with the idea that there are many possibilities - maybe the end is just a dream, maybe any number of dreams can be true. All this mean is there isn't really any ending and you are left feeling the author couldn't really decide where to take the story. With a more satisfying conclusion this would have been a great book. Still, enough of the writing was engaging and the plot was interesting enough that I will look forward to reading Christopher Nicholson's next book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing how people treat animals, both good and bad.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Fictional books about animals are in vogue, with Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Yann Martel's Life of Pi, each experiencing an extended stay on the bestseller list. Add Christopher Nicholson's The Elephant Keeper to that list. The book cast a spell upon me, and I read it in two sittings, unable to put it down. Set in the late 1700s, the novel tells the tale of young Tom Page, who is tasked by his employer to write a book about the elephant he has been caring for many years. Tom's father was head groom to John Harrington, a wealthy sugar merchant. Tom loved horses and followed in his father's footsteps. One day, a ship from Africa unloaded on the docks and and two elephants were among the cargo. No one had ever seen such incredible creatures, and they were disoriented and ill from their long sea journey. Harrington was a shrewd businessman, and after asking Tom if he though the elephants would live, purchased them from the ship's captain. Tom takes to the elephants immediately and is eager to work with them. At first they were angry and wary of Tom, making several successful attempts to pick the locks of their crates to escape, but eventually they began to trust him. He names them Timothy and Jenny, although is careful to not share this information with anyone else less they think he is mad. I also think by not sharing their names with anyone else, he keeps them from becoming attached to anyone else; they belong only to Tom. Tom's relationship with the elephants sadly precludes normal relationships with humans, particularly women. He sleeps in the barn near the elephants, spends all his time with them, and when a lovely young lady named Lizzie wants to become closer to Tom, he spurns her. His responsibility is to the beautiful creatures whom he believes need him. As the story progresses, the reader is privy to dialogue between Tom and Jenny. Is Jenny really speaking to Tom, or is this an example of Tom sliding into some sort of madness? Not all goes well with Tom and the elephants, and the twists and turns of this tragic tale are masterfully told by Nicholson. The thought-provoking end to this magical story will be turned over in the mind of the reader for a long time, and I suspect people will either love the ending or hate it. I loved it.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
Christopher Nicholson had not registered on my radar before this latest gentle, lumbering, big and somehow "soft" narrative about two elephants who land at the docks in Bristol, England in the 1700's. The novel is not written like anything that came out of that era, thank goodness, but one gets a feeling of life stripped of its furious pace and all the unnecessary essentials we all find so time consuming now. The story lets us live closely with the animals for the first third of the book, and celebrates the close bonds that can be formed between animals and humans. At the same time, it pains us to see the cruel mistreatments that were common fare then. This absolutely is a book valuable for all of us and teenagers, too, for it gently instructs in an interesting way. There is sex, but it is animal sex, for the most part, or is introduced that way. And anyway, I don't think we are trying to prevent teens from knowing about sex, are we? This book suggests when sex can be wrong and when it can be right, which is actually very helpful. Would be a good class reading selection, especially grades 10-12.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Liked this a lot. Very sad at times but the love between Tom Page and his elephants kept my interest throughout the story.
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