One of my favorite stories to tell is about “the time I was seven years old and I rode an elephant in the circus”; an absolutely true story that is perfect for the two truths and a lie game. It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, and with all the how and why aside, every time I tell it, I’m reminded of the exhilaration I felt sitting above this majestic and regal animal. In Eric Dinerstein’s new middle grade novel, What Elephants Know, the experience of living among elephants in Nepal is at the center of an even better story; an adventurous and enlightening novel for young readers.
The book opens with twelve-year-old Nandu telling us his origins: when he was two years old he was under the care of the dhole (a pack of wild dogs), before ending up with his mother, a fierce but loving elephant named Devi Kali, and, his father, a man with one arm. As we learn more about Nandu and his life working and living at an elephant stable in Nepal, we come to learn that it’s all true. He is a modern-day boy of The Jungle Book, with a deep connection to the jungle and all of its fierce but beautiful creatures.
Orphaned and now under the protective care of Subba-sahib, the one-armed animal healer and owner of the king’s stable, Nandu’s auspicious beginnings send him off on a remarkable young life. From his very first elephant hunt, in which he boldly stops the king from shooting a mother tigress, to boarding school, through the dangers of the jungle and back, Nandu constantly wonders where he truly belongs. When the king threatens to close down the stable, the one place he might consider home, he wonders what fate has in store for him next.
A rich and endearing cast of characters help Nandu on his search for answers; among them the gentle and wise Subba-sahib, Nandu’s loyal friend Dilly, the determined and smart young Rita, Father Autry, an American scientist Nandu meets at boarding school, and the elephants, who, as the title suggests, may know more than we could imagine about their human friends and caretakers. In spare but meaningful prose, the novel comes alive in the jungle and Dinerstein lovingly portrays life in the wild; its vast and terrible dangers, as well as its beauty.
Gradually, Nandu learns that he can let fate take him where it wants, or he can find ways to change his path, and that both options can lead to beautiful possibilities.
A perfect book for young animal lovers and activists alike, What Elephants Know has a mystical and epic quality. Readers will close the novel feeling like they’ve been let in on a wonderful secret about our world, our connections to all living species, and the way all of our origins, no matter how mysterious or humble, can lead us to great things.
What Elephants Know is on shelves now.