CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 5. . . .September 30, 2011
The Elephant Mountains.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
203 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Daphne Hamilton-Nagorsen.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
He heard the whistle of the wood ducks overhead, along with the thrum of their wings. Then there were splashes in the marsh. The ducks had gone to roost at the last possible moment. Almost at the same instant, the shooting began, most of it from AK-47s, but then there was also the sound of his father's machine gun. Someone began to scream, the sound so terrible he clapped his hands over his ears. He just hoped it was not his father. He thought again of his father's instructions: if something like this happened he was to stay away. His father would come find him. If he did not come, that would mean he was dead.
But it could be his father screaming. He started along the trail that wound through underbrush and high grass. Because it was under a foot of water, he had to move carefully so as not to make noise. The screaming faded away to a few murmurs and then stopped. Now he was out of the water, and it was easier to be quiet. Then the searchlight came on again. Through the trees he could see the figures of three men. None of them looked like his father. Three bodies lay on the ground.
Fifteen-year-old Stephen has been spending a summer with his father. His plans to return to New Orleans at the end of the summer change after a series of hurricanes flood New Orleans and much of the surrounding area. With no signs that the water is receding, chaos and violence are everywhere, and people must survive as best they can. After his father is killed, Stephen meets Angela, a college student, whose parents have also been killed. They decide to try and find their way to high ground, wherever it may be.
Scott Ely has written an interesting book about survival after natural disasters, Unlike many similar books, Ely focuses on the aftermath, rather than the hurricanes, themselves, and what happened at that time. In fact, the time during the hurricanes is rarely mentioned while the characters discuss what happened to them afterwards. This focus makes for a well-paced story, although it does reduce some readers' knowledge of the background of many characters.
The steady pace of the story continues throughout the book. The pacing allows readers to feel that the events are unfolding in real time and to get a sense of what day-to-day life has become like for the characters. This pacing really allows readers to connect with the characters and also allows the characters to develop along with the story. The pacing also keeps the story more believable as it allows ample time for higher intensity scenes, as well as lulls in the action.
Scott Ely has created a variety of interesting and quirky characters for The Elephant Mountains. These include the Swamp Hog who can occasionally be heard on the radio, a pair of convicts looking for a pardon, an insurance agent, and a towboat captain. The secondary characters add a very lively extra dimension to the story. While many of these characters do not survive the book, they add an extra layer of realism as well as some humour to the story. Ely has added a good selection of villains as well, but the reader does not really get to know those characters.
The entire story is told from Stephen's perspective. While this approach does keep the story much more focussed, it also seems like a missed opportunity. Much of the plot is based on how people act when normalcy is lost, but the reader can only know Stephen's reasons for his actions, as well as what he thinks about the actions of others. It would be very interesting to get into the heads of the other characters, especially the villains, to find out what they think and why they are acting the way that they are.
The Elephant Mountains is a very believable story. There are no superheroes coming to the rescue and very few happy endings. The characters are just ordinary people who have seen their lives changed drastically and who are simply trying to survive. A spectrum of human behaviour is portrayed, from those who will help others to those who will kill without provocation. As one character comments, it is other people who are the danger, not the hurricanes or the water. The Elephant Mountains reflects the actual conditions that could exist after a natural disaster, and Ely makes no attempts to sugarcoat anything. This gives the story extra depth and believability.
The Elephant Mountains is a well-written story about survival after a natural disaster that can be enjoyed by a variety of readers.
Daphne Hamilton-Nagorsen is a graduate of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at UBC, Vancouver, BC.
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