Half asleep one morning, Michael Morpurgo heard a snippet of a news story on the radio about a zoo keeper in Belfast, Ireland who kept her elephant safe during World War II by housing the creature in her back yard. Awake, and unsure whether he had heard correctly, he Googled “woman who kept elephant safe in Belfast World War II: and discovered this story: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/northernireland/5058132/Identity-of-mystery-elephant-angel-revealed.html. This remarkable story became the seed for An Elephant in the Garden.
Lizzie, her younger brother Karl, and their mother live in Dresden, Germany. They are not sure why the ravages of World War II seemed to have spared their city so far, but they are anxious about their father who is serving on the front lines, and daily life is fraught with hunger and dread. Lizzie’s mother works at the zoo, caring for an orphaned baby elephant to whom she has become very attached. Too attached, thinks Lizzie. Should the bombs fall, as they have in Berlin and other cities, Lizzie’s mother has been told the large animals will have to be shot. But she has other plans, and soon begins to bring Marlene, the young elephant, home every night to the safety of their garden.
One night, during a walk in the park, Marlene is frightened by a neighbors dog, and charges off into the woods. Lizzie and her family follow in desperate search, and then the bombs begin to fall. This was, of course, the firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945, which lasted two days and is estimated to have killed 135,000 people. Unable to turn back, Lizzie and her family, accompanied by Marlene, try to make their way to the safety of a relative’s farm. There, they discover a Canadian RAF pilot taking shelter in the abandoned house. And, in the midst of war and all the suffering that surrounds them, this unusual group forges a powerful bond – one that leads them though many narrow escapes and into freedom.
Told as a flashback by a dying Lizzie, this is a wonderful story about courage and our capacity to see the essential humanity that binds us all. This would make a great read aloud for a historical fiction genre launch, or a book club selection. I know my sixth graders will find the presence of Marlene to be doubly enticing, and there will be much to discuss about the events, characters, and themes in this book.
Karen Hesse is such a remarkable writer, and Brooklyn Bridge lives up to all the expectations I had about a Hesse-written book. 14 year-old Joseph Mitchtom’s life is turned upside down when his Russian immigrant parents invent the teddy bear. It is 1903, Coney Island is booming, and all Joseph wants to do is to be able to spend a day there with his family, enjoying all the rides and treats that he is forever hearing about. But his parents are working from dawn to dusk in the hopes that this bear will be their ticket to a better life, and one day Joseph decides to run away and just walk to Coney Island himself. That foolhardy adventure leads to many important discoveries – about himself, and about his family.
Hesse paints a vivid picture of immigrant life in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Parallel to Joseph’s story is one about abandoned children who live under the Brooklyn Bridge. Runaways and castaways, they band together to survive. This part of the narrative has a mournful , dreamlike quality; Hesse has a story for each, some brutality they have each endured, some terrible harm that they have been left to themselves to heal. Both story lines converge in a dramatic way at the end of the novel, which ends as many of Hesse’s books do, leaving the reader with much to ponder over.
This would be another great choice for historical fiction book clubs. Here is an interview with Karen Hesse in which she discusses Brooklyn Bridge. I think I will share this with my kids in place of a book trailer when I book talk Brooklyn Bridge: