- Angela Critics
In the closing months of World War II, the Allies are bombing German cities. As Dresden prepares for the inevitable, Lizzie’s family gains an unlikely extra member. Lizzie’s mother works at the Dresden zoo. When the zoo director orders that in the event of a bombing raid, the animals must be shot to prevent them escaping and causing havoc in the city, Lizzie’s mother convinces him to let her take the young orphaned elephant, Marlene, home. And so Marlene moves into the shed in the garden behind Lizzie’s house.
When the bombing of Dresden finally happens, the destruction is worse than anyone imagined. With the Soviet Army approaching from the East, Lizzie’s family flees to the West through bitter winter weather with Marlene in tow. An Elephant in the Garden is not only a story of the horrors of World War II from the perspective of German civilians, it is a tale of an unlikely group of people drawn together by circumstances and an elephant, struggling to survive war, hunger, and winter hardship and to escape to safety behind Allied lines.
While the story is fictional, Morpurgo was inspired by historical facts. In Belfast during World War II, a zookeeper did rescue a young, orphaned elephant from a shooting order, much as Marlene is saved in this book. Another inspiration was the story of a friend’s family who fled westward with other refugees, fleeing the Soviet Army’s advance through Eastern Germany.
An Elephant in the Garden is told from Lizzie’s point of view. She is an ordinary teenager forced to grow up in desperate times. In the midst of the turmoil, Marlene draws the small family together. You would think that traveling with an elephant on such a journey would make everything harder. But Marlene has a way of smoothing things over and making friends of strangers. She certainly embodies Morpurgo’s belief in the nobility and wisdom of elephants. While any tale of war can’t help but be grim, Marlene’s presence as a character in her own right lightens the mood. An Elephant in the Garden is a story of both tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit. It is a story of how animals can bring out the best in people, and how one very special elephant created a bridge between enemies.