Small as an ElephantSpring 2011 Fiction
11-year-old Jack wakes up at a camping ground in Maine alone. It’s the first morning of a planned weekend trip with his mother. They’d driven from Boston in a rental car the day before. Now the car, tent, and all traces of her are gone. It’s a harrowing start. Jack has his own tent and sleeping bag, a cell phone and fourteen dollars. He has no idea how to find her. The situation is dire and gets worse. Jack’s cell phone – his only means of contact – gets ruined. He goes through the money quickly, and raccoons steal the last of his food. When he finally finds a clue to his mother’s whereabouts, it’s dispiriting.
Through Jack’s descriptions of his mother’s “spinning” times, vague references to her mood changes and previous disappearances, it becomes clear she is not well. He is desperate to find her, though, before someone finds him. He’s terrified of being taken from her.
Jack’s journey through Maine is an exhilarating one. Readers will be captivated by the resourceful ways he finds to survive. There are close calls and escapes, and finally, when he allows it – the heartwarming kindness of strangers.
The elephant of the title is from a treasured childhood memory that left Jack entranced. Quotes and snippets about elephants adorn each chapter and from the small talisman Jack carries for luck, to the legendary Lydia of Maine – they loom large.
Absent parents in young adult novels is a common theme. Often they’ve died tragically. Jacks’ mother is loving and sometimes brilliant, but also heartbreakingly incapable. His journey to save her is fearsome and heroic. Author Jennifer Richard Jacobson treats mental illness with a gentle and compassionate hand and writes with empathy to the families and friends it affects. It’s a tragic but beautiful story.