Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant

As some readers of this blog know, I’m currently working towards a PhD and am part of an English department that really likes its children’s literature. Some of us have been shadowing the Carnegie award shortlist for this year, and in a moment of poor judgement I decided to write about all of the books on the shortlist for this blog as well as for our official one (to which I will link when we have more on it). The winner will be announced on the 23rd of June, and I’m hoping to have written about all of the books by then. First, Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s The Child’s Elephant.

[There may be spoilers]


I may as well expose my personal biases at the outset: I came to The Child’s Elephant already wary. Because it was part of a Carnegie shortlist whose primary theme appeared to be Bad Things Happening; because it had an animal in the title and faithful animal companions in literature sometimes die; because it was a novel set in Africa by a non-African writer, and I’ve read far too many of those that are a mess of offensive clichés.

In Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s defence, the elephant does not die.

Bat, the protagonist (named after the flying rodent by “the white people with sky-coloured eyes”), and his friend Amuka find an orphaned baby elephant and bring her home to raise. Everyone in the village thinks this is a great idea (apparently their people have a historic affinity with elephants) and Meya is allowed to rampage around being cute and occasionally saving the village from snakes. Eventually she grows up and has to be taken back to the herd.

There’s probably something to be said about Campbell-Johnston’s decision to base her title on Rudyard Kipling, and the implications of this, but I refuse to say it.

Weak writing about Africa (the events of the plot suggest that this is Uganda, but the country’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text) often rests on one of two extremes. There’s Africa as wild, magical place full of innocent, happy villagers and wild animals, and then there’s Africa as home of awful news stories about war and starvation. The Child’s Elephant achieves both of these at various points. Soon after Meya has left the village, Bat and Muka are kidnapped … by Joseph Kony’s army. The “about the author” section explains that Campbell-Johnston learned about Kony as a leader writer for The Times—I only hope it wasn’t in 2012. At least the “about the author” section informs us that she has visited Uganda.

The children’s time in the Lord’s Resistance Army forms a relatively small portion of the book itself, which is in some ways a relief, and in others deeply unsatisfying. It’s closely observed and horrifying, if in a very news-report-y way, and then it ends and we’re allowed to move on. And perhaps it’s ridiculous to ask for more awfulness in a book that already contains plenty of violence and trauma, but I do think that if a book is going to invoke something painful it needs to give it its full weight. I’m not sure The Child’s Elephant does.

The main characters are given a sort of constructed naiveté that continues well into their maturity—between the ages of 7 and 15 or so Bat doesn’t seem to have aged at all, despite becoming the primary earner for his household, raising an animal to maturity, and having spent some time captive in the army. Amuka lives walking-distance from the town where there are electronics shops, yet is utterly baffled by the existence of television even after several visits. Puberty doesn’t seem to happen to anyone (except a sexually-threatening villain) until the book’s epilogue tells us that the main characters have married and had a child. What interiority Bat might have is always deferred—more than once we are told that he is overwhelmed by emotions that he can’t articulate, though not why the author, writing from his perspective, can’t articulate them either. All this makes for a set of flat stock characters; feisty, beautiful girl, wise and infinitely patient grandmother, sexually threatening bully, talkative, fat neighbour. The closest we get to character development (and the closest we get to trauma) comes in the form of Bat’s friend Gulu, who carries the weight of his own guilt over the awful things he has been forced to do, and who does not believe (and perhaps he’s right) that he’d be able to live a normal life after these experiences.

After all this, the final section of the book comes as something of a relief. The three children escape with some help from Meya the elephant and begin a long trek back home, starving and dehydrated. It’s almost dreamlike; partly due to the characters’ own lightheadedness, but partly also because some of the events it describes don’t entirely belong to the realm of the real. To me, this is a good thing; many of the novel’s flaws exist in the context of a larger tradition of writing the other, and an extra remove from reality can only be a good thing (though it doesn’t fix things). In any case, I found myself more reconciled to the book here than at any point in the previous pages.

But the best I can find to say about The Child’s Elephant is that it annoyed me less in its final third. It’s tempting to blame (and I do) a wider literary culture when I can find no reviews of the book that raise questions of representation at all—to the point that I almost convinced myself I was overreacting. But I read this book alongside a group of other people with an academic interest in children’s literature and to all of us it was glaring.

I wish I had been overreacting though.


4 Responses to “Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant

  1. :\ I’ve been wary of this one too and you’ve confirmed all my fears. Looking forward to your thoughts on the rest of the shorstlist.


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