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In 1766 a ship called Dover landed at Bristol Docks with a cargo of exotic animals from the Indies, many of the animals perished during the long journey over the ocean but two elephants survived and were bought by Lord Bidborough who was entranced by these unusual animals and also thought he may be able to breed them for their valuable ivory. The task of caring for the elephants falls to a young stable boy called Tom Page who had previously cared for horses as had his father before him and he finds he has a natural affinity with the elephants and nurses them back to health after their long journey. Tom is asked to write down a history of the elephant and his writing also tells his own life story.
Tom develops a remarkable bond with the elephants and feeds them, teaches them tricks, learns to ride them and loves taking them deep into the countryside where they can swim in the rivers and roll about in the mud. Lord Bidborough realises that elephants are far more expensive to keep than horses and when Timothy, the male elephant, reaches sexual maturity he becomes too much to handle and is sold on. Tom now becomes the sole companion of Jenny, the female elephant, and stays with her for many years as she is shunted around between owners. What will life hold for Tom and Jenny as the years go by?
Having an elephant as the main character in a book is certainly a novel idea and one that works well especially as the conversations which Tom imagines he has with her are laid out on the page. The human characters are also well developed, we learn a lot about life in the eighteenth century especially about the class differences and how a man may be owned by a rich master every bit as much as an animal can be. The people who own Jenny and Tom vary in how they treat both other human beings and animals with acts of great kindness and intolerable cruelty both being portrayed. Tom largely neglects his human relationships due to the love and devotion he feels for Jenny, a choice which leaves him lonely and searching for love and companionship in seedy inns and brothels and teetering on the edge of madness.
The book also explores what it means to be human and the similarities and difference which exist between our own and other species. Thoughts about animals and how to treat them have changed over the two and a half centuries since the time in which the book was set as have the nature of the relationship between master and servant. One thing that has not changed is either human or animal nature and what lies at the core of our existence.
The Elephant Keeper is a beautifully written book which is a joy to read. The central character, Jenny, is a gentle and dignified creature who lives according to the whims of her rich owners and according to the prevailing thoughts on how to treat animals which seem outdated to a modern reader. The language used in the book is lovely with many poetically written descriptions of the life of the elephant and her surroundings and the book uses some old English words and spellings which really adds to the mood of the book. The Elephant Keeper is an exceptionally good book which combines storytelling, description and philosophical debate in a way which will capture the readers imagination and leave them wanting more once they have finished reading.