In her tender, funny, far-reaching new novel in verse, Margarita Engle (whose “Enchanted Air” won the Pura Belpré Award) expands our notion of who gets to do the rescuing in children’s animal stories. Having recently moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., from Cuba, 11-year-old Oriol is teased for her accent, misses her recently deceased abuelita and feels generally adrift in her new language and social world. Then she makes two friends who give her life meaning: a bilingual poet who has herself just moved to town (a fictionalized version of the real-life Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) and an elephant named Chandra. Oriol’s parents run a veterinary clinic that has brought them into contact with the elephant, also far from home and adrift, exploited by the entertainment industry. (“Singing With Elephants” is set in 1947, when live animals were frequently used in film; though the practice is less common now, sanctuaries are still filled with castoff Hollywood apes, elephants and big cats.)
Via elegantly efficient narrative poetry, Engle weaves themes of longing and belonging, of communication and the sorts of attachment that are too deep ever to be communicated with words:
The poet switches to inglés
just to help me — but animals
don’t recognize my effort
to make sense
of letters like a y
that sounds like my ll
and an h that is not silent
and a k that does not even exist
in Spanish — so todas las bestiecitas
begin to bark, bleat, quack, and grunt a humorous animal opera …
By presenting two story lines in parallel, Engle deepens both: Mistral tries to teach Oriol how to speak English without losing track of her Cuban identity, while Oriol tries to get inside the mind of a confined elephant who has no opportunity to communicate with members of her own species. Oriol learns from the elephant’s gentle 16-year-old Nepalese caretaker that Asian elephants can tell when another herd is approaching by the distant sound vibrations absorbed through their enormous feet, and she starts to wonder what her new friend’s experience of Southern California must be like:
Now, imagine how scary it must sound
to the skin of her feet, as they listen
to the ground, whenever a movie star’s
fancy sports car roars uphill
with visitors from Hollywood.
When Oriol later discovers that baby elephants are often trained to grab their own tongues with their trunks to make a sound almost like “Hello,” to entertain human audiences, she is outraged:
What would Gabriela Mistral say
if she knew language was being used
“Singing With Elephants” isn’t just beautiful poetry and a fascinating consideration of communication across boundaries; it’s also a taut rescue story. After Chandra gives birth to twins, one of her babies disappears — and Oriol suspects she’s been taken. She must use all she has learned about English and elephant ways to locate the young creature and mount a petition drive to reunite her with her mother and brother.
Outsider girl and outsider elephant, outsider poet and outsider trainer find connection and community when their stories collide.
The villain of Engle’s novel is Blaze, an establishment movie star — white, well connected, wealthy — who has abducted the baby elephant for a “filmmaking experiment.” The white boy isn’t a hero this time around. The marginalized people and animals who band together to check the systems of power that endanger them are the heroes.