Elephant Families

August 2, 2011

    AT AGE SEVEN, I WAS TRAPPED in an elevator. Stuck. Forgotten. Desperate.

    OK. Kind of. 

    In truth, my ordeal lasted all of a few minutes and ended swiftly when my companion — no, I wasn't alone, I admit it: there was a girl a few years older in the car with me who managed to force the jammed door open into the lobby. 

    What I remember most about this otherwise trivial event is that, once it became clear that the elevator door wasn't opening and the car wasn't moving, I had a meltdown; my mind raced from calm to a full-bore "oh-god-oh-god-my-parents-will-never-bother-to-look-for-us-and-we're-going-to-be-found-as-skeletons" crying jag in mere seconds. 

    There are two lessons to be learned: 1.) thick skin can be a late blooming quality in some, and 2.) the fear of parental abandonment is primal, pervasive, and absolutely relatable to any human.

    In Jennifer Richard Jacobson's novel Small as an Elephant, that fear manifests with enormous, visceral, and immediately compelling stakes when a mentally ill single mother abandons her son in a Maine campground. The resulting journey home — complicated by the young protagonist's efforts to find his missing mother — is an engaging trip through the psyche of an almost archetypically resourceful, big-hearted boy with a bulletproof conscience.

    At age ten, Jacobson's protagonist, Jack, is very much aware of his mother's manic episodes and has integrated them into his worldview without compromising his love and desire for her attention: "'She's not feeling well,' he'd say. That was as close to the truth as he could come." More than any external complication, this need for good-enough mothering is what drives Jack across the expanse of New England; he won't turn himself in to the authorities because, Jacobsen writes, "he knew they took kids away from bad mothers." But we're given a sense of Jack's mom's character, of what he stands to lose, through things she has given him — a favorite book of poetry intended for grownups, for instance, or through the outgoing message he hears each time he attempts to reach her on his dying phone: "'Becky Martel here — or not here to be exact. Don't leave any old message — wow me!' He waited for the beep and then shouted, 'Where are you?'" Jack's abandonment turns him into an emotional fugitive, someone unwilling to seek help from any of the potentially helpful adults scattered about the novel's landscape. His choice to be on his own out of filial loyalty makes him a heroic figure, even as his actions drive him in and out of otherwise avoidable jeopardy.

    It is Jacobson's strong and clear-eyed third person narrative that kept me from becoming exasperated with the boy's refusal to seek or accept help.

    Seawall Camping Supplies didn't look like any store Jack had ever visited. It was a cabin — with a porch and everything — and had signs all over it. HOT SHOWERS AND LOBSTER POUND, read one sign. Another said, IT'S COOLER ON THE COAST. He would have felt nervous about walking into the strange place if not for a sign that read, COIN-OP SHOWERS INSIDE STORE. CHANGE AT THE COUNTER. The sign made him laugh, and wished his mother was there to share the joke.

    Jack's mother is often spoken of but never truly seen in the narrative, and his commitment to find her without outside help is beyond question, even as the world becomes increasingly inhospitable to a ten-year-old with no money and a several-hundred-mile journey home to Jamaica Plain, Boston.

    Neither the boy's journey nor Jacobsen's narrative is without bumps, however. While the plotting is tight enough, replete with all the complications necessary to sell the idea of a ten-year-old on the run for several days (doused cell phones, lost backpacks, roadside scavenging and shoplifting), the second half settles into a rhythmic pattern of episodic turns that threaten to rob the greater narrative of its force. Indeed, a late-in-the-story vignette in which Jack becomes trapped in a closed safe feels like a weird, genre-skirting side trip that would have been better used for Jack to settle accounts with his child-abandoning loon of a mother.

    The novel's focus on Jack's relation to his mother is what keeps him interesting, and the examination of that relationship turns out to be interwoven with Jack's obsession with elephants, the story's organizing metaphor. Every chapter begins with an "elephant fact," such as, "Due to the thick padding on their feet, elephants walk slowly," and to cite one that is perhaps more immediately metaphoric: "It was once assumed that all elephants in a group were related. But not so. If an elephant family has been torn apart due to poaching, elephants will form new families." Jack's purloined toy elephant is his sole companion through the length of the journey, and, most importantly, the novel's payoff lies in the boy's dawning realization that even in his loneliest moments, he has been part of a greater herd that guided him to safety. 

    Given this thematic turn, I was left wishing that Jacobson had invested the rest of the metaphoric herd with features as noble as her protagonist's — and that she had given her hero the observational skills to notice that these seemingly inscrutable adults had been watching over him all along. Jack is so focused on his quest that people who help or hinder him register as mere blurs in the landscape; and he is so preoccupied by his mother's demons — "Jack help me — they won't listen," plays over in his head — that he cannot listen to or trust anyone — not his friend's mother, not even his own grandmother. They would be "just like the social workers and the guidance counselor and everyone else who thought they were helping when they were only making things worse," he thinks. The story is told from Jack's point of view, and he simply isn't in a headspace to fully appreciate the adults — all his mother's potential betrayers — surrounding him.

    Still, this complaint does little to tarnish Jacobson's accomplishment: the creation of a hero whose attachment to a profoundly damaged parent gives credence to the character's every move. Young Adult fiction is rife with stories of lost children, but this one reads as a necessary addition. The author of Small as an Elephant is aware enough of these tropes to cite The Box-Car Children and The Great Gilly Hopkins as examples of literary hobo youth on the road, and uses these references as a jumping-off point to address more complicated issues of mental illness and single parenthood. The result is a rare narrative that addresses parental abandonment and mental illness with kindness, compassion, and sensitivity, while remaining mercifully free of stranger-danger and child-in-jeopardy cliches. Small as an Elephant takes us through its physical and emotional journey with bold strokes, clean lines, and an optimistic conclusion that will reassure its readers that, like Jack's thick-footed elephants, we are all in this together.


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