CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 28. . . .March 22, 2013
London, UK: Red Fox Books (Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada), 2012.
267 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.
Review by Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie.
Hal and Joro then did a strange thing. They stooped, took the loop of chain, slipped it over the elephant’s foot, and locked it tight.
Roger was puzzled. ‘What’s the idea of chaining a dead elephant?’
Hal answered, ‘He’s not dead.’
‘Not dead! A bullet through his brain and he’s not dead?’
‘I’m sorry to correct you, little brother, but the bullet didn’t go through his brain. The top of his head is all bone. You could punch it full of holes and he wouldn’t die. The brain is beneath all that, just between his eyes. He’s only stunned. He’ll be up and around again in a few minutes.’
Roger could see the amusement in the eyes of the men. He felt considerably let down. A great hunter he was!
Hal was laughing. ‘So you see,’ he said, ‘in spite of your murderous instincts, we’re going to get him alive.’
Roger thought bitterly, I just hope you don’t. Big brothers are hard to bear. They thought they were so smart.
Reading Willard Price’s reissued copy of Elephant Adventure feels a bit like taking a bite out of what one thinks to be a heavily frosted cupcake, only to discover that it is a stale bran muffin in disguise. The 2012 book cover is cool, updated, intriguing, and… deceptive.
This rebranded book will lure unsuspecting children into a pre-culturally-sensitive era wherein stereotypes are not only used but exercised to an uncomfortable level by modern standards. In addition, there have been major leaps and bounds in the last 40 years since the text of this book was written with regards to the methods used for the conservation of endangered species. Throughout this book, there is an instructive feel to the narrative. The text contains many interesting scientific facts about elephants, and the general flora and fauna in the Mountains of the Moon location in Africa; while these facts are welcome contributions to the story, it makes it that much more difficult for young readers to determine for themselves which part of the text is outdated (and culturally inappropriate) and which part is still scientifically sound.
Written in third person narration, this traditional boys’ adventure series follows a somewhat monotonous plot line. Hal and Roger Hunt are a pair of young adventurous brothers. In this installment, the two teenaged boys find themselves on an expedition in Africa in order to find and capture an illusive white elephant which they plan to sell to the highest bidding zoo. While they are on the hunt, Hal and Roger witness the majesty of their mountainous location, the emotional capacities of elephants, and the remaining vestiges of a slave trade. In a classic man versus nature conflict, the two boys must prove their hunting prowess (to their father, and their safari men) by overcoming a wild beast. It takes the boys numerous tries, and multiple elephants, but Hal and Roger demonstrate whether or not brotherly teamwork wins the day.
As characters, Hal and Roger follow the stereotypical older and younger brother dynamic. Hal is wise, well-read, and logical, whereas his younger brother, Roger, is impulsive, reckless, and sentimental. While these character foils create moments of humour in the text, overall, the characters do not have a sense of depth or reality.
As a reader, one big question needs to be answered about this text: can we justify its reissue? Willard Price’s three granddaughters, Katharine Price, Susannah Price Haney, and Rebecca Price Brooks, preface the book with a caveat: the conservation techniques and descriptions of other cultures were “appropriate at the time of writing.” While I appreciate their acknowledgement of this fact, it does not change the words in the text and the uncomfortable feelings I had when reading them: “Now he felt like a skyscraper as he looked down on the chief of the pygmies… This small black creature of the forest with large head and old face seemed more like a chimpanzee than a man” (52). When it is clear that this sort of language and description is outdated and unsuitable for modern sensibilities, why should we re-circulate these stories? Rather than promoting a book that was “appropriate at the time of writing,” when it comes to books for young people, shouldn’t we focus on endorsing books that are “appropriate at the time of reading?”
Jonathan Cape’s black and white line drawings, which are peppered throughout the text, are dark and hard to decipher. In fact, these illustrations, themselves, seem to counteract the vibrant descriptions in the text of the surrounding forest and wildlife.
The overt breech of the imaginary divide in the very last line of the book rips the reader out of the African setting and reminds him/her that this book is part of a conveniently packaged series and that the next title is Safari Adventure. This is a startling change in the nature of narration considering that we did not “enter” the story through a narrative framework. I, for one, do not like to be manipulated by a brand: advertisements should be saved for the back cover, or be sophisticated enough that it is unrecognizable in the text. Blatant promotion cheapens the reading experience.
Despite Anthony Horowitz’s ringing endorsement on the cover of the book that “[t]hese were the books that got [him] reading,” there is a time and a place for everything. Price’s adventurous storyline does not counterbalance the culturally inappropriate language in the text. With a multitude of competing adventure series out there, there is no reason to revive and to re-peddle outdated texts. As a teacher-librarian, myself, would I place this book into the hands of one of my students? The answer is no.
Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie, a teacher-librarian and a grade 8 English teacher at a middle school in Victoria, BC, is concurrently pursuing her MA degree in Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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