Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. Small as an Elephant. New York: Candlewick, 2011.
Jack Martel is an unreliable narrator, not because he lies to readers, but because he lies to himself. When Jack crawls out of his tent on the first morning of their vacation, he finds the serene landscape of their secluded campsite unspoiled by anything, including his mother’s tent, all their camping gear, and their rental car. His mother has left, gone without a trace. Jack hides her disappearance, and readers begin to realize there is more to the story than Jack is telling. Jack cannot bear to admit that his mother has left him behind and gone off on one of her “spinning” episodes. But gradually he is forced to admit that she is not coming back in a few hours or even a few days. He is totally alone in Acadia National Park, two states away from his Boston home, and has no money and no one to help. If he goes to authorities, he fears his mother will go to jail and he will never see her again. His only option seems to be to head for home and wait until his mother recovers and finds him there. He sets out on his journey, bolstered by memories of his mother and their love of elephants. He does his best to reason out every choice, but his decisions all seem to have both good and bad consequences. Can Jack make it home, protecting both himself and his absent mother, or is the task too overwhelming for any preteen to achieve? His goal shifts along the way when he learns that Lydia, a circus elephant, spends summers at a wildlife park in southern Maine. If he can just see a real, live elephant, Jack knows that somehow everything will be all right.
During the late 1800’s “seeing the elephant” became a metaphor for seeing the truth. It was a common Civil War euphemism for being in battle, seeing it for the horrific thing it really was instead of a patriotic event of glory and heroism. It serves the same purpose in Jacobson’s story. Jack’s determination to see the elephant is a metaphor for seeing and admitting the truth about his manic depressive mother. Jack is a well-defined, round, dynamic character who rings true. He does not have special skills that let him succeed easily, though his life has made him more self-sufficient than most young people his age. He endures hardships, learns from his mistakes, and is guilt-ridden over some of the choices he makes. He is a boy I would like to know better. I believe thoughtful readers will agree.