It’s been a little while since I last blogged, so I thought I’d do another book post.
Over the weekend I read “Elephant Moon”, by John Sweeney. Based on a true story, it is set in Burma during the second world war.
Grace Collins is a young Englishwoman who is sent to Burma by her father to keep her out of harm’s way whilst the war rages in Europe. Burma is, at the time, a British colony, with a large community of European expats ruling over the native Burmese. Grace finds herself teaching at Bishop Strachan’s, a school in Rangoon for orphaned “half-caste” girls. The girls are not true orphans, but abandoned mixed-race children, born to Burmese mothers and mostly British or American fathers. Too Burmese to fit in with the British expats, and too white to truly fit in with the Burmese, they are outcasts in society.
As the war begins to spread beyond Europe, Burma comes under threat from the Japanese. It eventually becomes apparent that the 8,000 expats in Burma would be powerless to resist a Japanese invasion, particularly since they would have no support from the native Burmese, who harbour feelings of resentment and hostility towards the British for having colonised their country. The colonial administration in Burma decides to evacuate the European population to the relative safety of neighbouring India.
The decision is made quickly, with no advance warning. Grace is warned of the impending evacuation by Lieutenant Peach, a British officer she has become friends with. Grace knows that her schoolchildren will be in particular danger once the British have left, as the Japanese will show no mercy to sixty-two half-caucasian teenage girls. Rather than fleeing with the rest of the Europeans, she decides to stay with her students and attempt to evacuate them to safety herself.
The story which follows is one of tremendous courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Grace and the children travel hundreds of miles on their decrepit school bus, with the help of many people they meet along the way. One of these is “the Jemadar”, an Indian soldier with his own story to tell, who plays a significant part in helping the children to escape and makes his own very unique contribution to the war. Lieutenant Peach also turns up at various intervals, always appearing when Grace and the children are most in need of help.
When the school are finally forced to abandon their bus in the heart of the jungle, with the Japanese only a few miles away, Grace believes that they cannot possibly survive. However, at that moment, they chance upon a group of men with a herd of elephants. Sam Metcalf, the “elephant man”, has one goal: to get his elephants to safety. He did not anticipate having to rescue sixty-two schoolchildren and their teacher. But he doesn’t have the heart to leave them to die, so he devises a plan to get all the men, Grace, the children and the elephants to safety.
I don’t want to give away any major plot spoilers, because this is worth a read. It’s John Sweeney’s first novel, and sometimes I think it shows. There are parts where I felt the plot was a little too sensationalist, or a character slightly under-developed. However, it was still very interesting and enjoyable. Before I read this book I knew very little about the history of Burma or the part it played in WWII. The author offers a not-so-subtle critique of the British administration in the former colonies, as well as detailing some of the unintended consequences of colonialism, and the role played by WWII in the dismantling of the British Empire.
Grace proves herself to be an extremely brave and resourceful woman, but I would have liked a little more development of her character. A decision she makes at the end of the book comes somewhat out of the blue, and seems quite inconsistent with what we know about her so far. I think it would have been more believable with a little more build-up, which the author could easily have done, as the book is not very long.
And finally, a word for the elephants. Could there be any better way to travel through the jungle? The author gives the elephants real charisma, which made me almost want to be there. (Yes, ok, I’d have to be a refugee who had lost everything, fleeing from a terrifying enemy force, but ELEPHANTS!) I think this book could have been improved if the author had devoted as much time and attention to developing the human characters’ personalities as he did to the elephants’, but that is my only real criticism.
Did I mention I loved the elephants?