Reality Trumps Fiction (Take Two)

August 5, 2021 § 1 Comment

Way back in 2013, when my kids thought all the best stories had to be “made-up,” I wrote a blog post about how, occasionally, reality trumps fiction. That is to say, sometimes a story blows our mind, not only because it’s beautiful and moving and awe-inspiring and original, but also because it happens to be true. Kids today have no shortage of options for picture book biographies, true stories about incredible individuals told with spellbinding art and captivating narratives, but when it comes to the animal world, the emphasis has historically been on information versus story.

Maybe that’s why The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship (Ages 6-9), written by Kim Tomsic and illustrated by Hadley Hooper, feels so special. It tells an amazing story—a story we’d warm to even if it was entirely made-up—but it gives us an added case of the goosies because we know from the start that it really happened. Or maybe it’s because the book straddles the animal and human world, allowing for some of the same storytelling prowess that has made picture book biographies soar in popularity. Or maybe it’s because it is stunningly executed (that paper! those colors! that art! those page turns!). Whatever the case, it’s hands down one of the best examples of narrative non-fiction I’ve ever come across. Even my daughter, age ten, has inhaled its 58 pages again and again. (If you trust me, stop reading to avoid the spoilers below and go get the book!)

Lawrence (who “loves animals”), Francoise (who “loves Lawrence”), and their dog Max are the resident caretakers of Thula Thula, a wildlife sanctuary which encompasses a farmhouse, a garden, a swimming pool, and 11,000 acres of African bush, savanna, and forest—all protected from the neighboring Zulu villages and prospective hunters by miles and miles of fencing. Think rhinos splashing in the river, zebras grazing the savannas, and crocodiles basking in the sun. Hadley Hooper expertly combines washes of color to invoke the heat of the African plains, the dappled lushness of tree canopies, and the scintillating pops of clear, blue water. Beneath these colors, the paper’s texture shows through, a grittiness that echoes the physicality of the land that itself plays an important role in the story.

Readers will linger over the glimpse into Lawrence and Françoise’s everyday life, an existence defined by immense stretches of land and wildlife, including monkeys that traipse through the backyard and snakes that need to be swept from the kitchen. It’s a life far removed from one most of us know, and one perfectly poised for the turn it takes.

One day—Thula Thula’s website reveals the date as August 1999—Lawrence receives a call about a “herd of angry elephants” threatening a distant village; if something isn’t done quickly, the elephants will be shot. Lawrence has never taken care of elephants, but he consents for them to come to Thula Thula. He works to construct a fenced corral for them to stay once they arrive, until they get used to their new home.

The elephants arrive by trailer in the middle of the night and, well, they aren’t happy about it. They’ve been bullied and hunted in their former life, and now they’ve got a baby they’re trying to protect. They “pound their hooves and trumpet angrily,” but where most of the rangers look at the elephants and see threat, Lawrence sees the bigger picture: the elephants are nervous. “Wouldn’t you be if you moved far from your home?” Several spreads are bathed in a deep, moody blue to mirror the elephants’ distress.

While the humans sleep, the elephants use their bodies to bulldoze through the fence enclosure. They take off.

The next few pages are devoted to locating the elephants and guiding them safely back to Thula Thula, where Lawrence continues to observe their fear. He decides to station himself 24-7 directly outside the repaired fence. He will eat, sleep, and breathe beside the elephants. He begins talking to them, reassuring them each time they approach the fence that their baby is safe, that he means them no harm. He sings to them; he tells them stories.

Eventually, their trumpeting and storming is replaced by “ear flopping” and “head waggling,” signs which Lawrence rightly concludes signify happiness. Friendship, too. Lawrence begins to develop a particularly close relationship with Nana, the elephants’ leader. And here is where the magic begins. Nana takes walks with Lawrence. She reaches through the fence and touches him with her trunk.

Eventually, Lawrence takes down the fence, and the elephants are given free reign of Thula Thula. They make this beautiful place, rich in biodiversity, their home. But they also visit Lawrence in his home, back at the farmhouse. Nana especially likes to play in the swimming pool and pat Lawrence’s stomach on the front porch. When Lawrence travels, the elephants greet him on his return. At some point, these visits become less frequent, as the elephants seek out the best acacia trees, as far as twelve hours from Lawrence and Françoise’s house.

And then, Lawrence dies, a moment the book’s author and illustrator honor with grace and tenderness. Françoise and Max mourn him, but so do the elephants, hundreds of miles away. With an awareness of grief that is almost unparalleled in the animal world, the elephants register instinctively that one of their own has died—and all of them begin the long journey back to Lawrence’s house.

Françoise watches as the elephants form a circle around the house, softly rumbling and bowing their heads. For three days, they stay there, grieving in solidarity with Lawrence’s family. For the next three years, the elephants return on the exact anniversary of Lawrence’s death. For the next three years. I have chills right now, as I do every time I read this story. An elephant truly never forgets.

In instances where reality trumps fiction, it is almost always where love is at play. Love makes possible things we can’t possibly dream up. The love that one man showed a herd of wild elephants would shape, not only the elephants, but his own life—and that of his loved ones. It’s a love that reminds us how we are all connected, that we belong to one another, if we open our hearts and let it be so.

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Review copy graciously shared by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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