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What Elephants Know

Review

What Elephants Know

In the colorful, vivid setting of the Nepalese Borderlands, between China and India, readers of Eric Dinerstein’s WHAT ELEPHANTS KNOW can go on many adventures and meet characters in a culture they never knew existed. Written with the expertise of Dinerstein, who holds a PhD in Wildlife Studies, one can follow 12-year-old Nandu as he grows up in the king’s elephant stable.
 
Nandu was found at age two with a pack of wolves who spared his life and accepted him as one of their own. Subba-sahib, who is the very knowledgeable head of the King’s elephant stable, takes him home to Nepal and adopts him as his own son. Nandu forms a strong mother-and-son bond with a female elephant named Devi Kali. Nandu and Devi Kali are able to communicate verbally and nonverbally. The two of them can detect each other’s moods with a skill that other animals of the same species lack. Dinerstein makes it clear that not only is Devi Kali aware of Nandu’s presence, but that his existence gives meaning to and improves her own life.
 
The connection between this young boy and older female elephant in this book is enough to warm hearts while certain other events will be sure to break them.  In the beginning, this book is dedicated “To elephant lovers everywhere,” but if the reader was not an elephant lover to begin with, they will surely become one once they have read WHAT ELEPHANTS KNOW --- or they will, at the very least, appreciate the majesty, perception and sensitivity of these creatures.
"The cultural diversity presented in this book demonstrates a quality that has been lacking in middle grade literature." 
The cultural diversity presented in this book demonstrates a quality that has been lacking in middle grade literature. The text is very direct with issues of racism and castes as Nandu is not treated as an equal by his classmates. The language of this culture is not forfeited as many Nepalese terms are used in italics and can be looked up in the glossary in the back, along with Nepalese elephant commands. However, there is no need to worry about interrupting the story to flip back and forth through the glossary as many of the terms are repeated or placed in a context that can be understood without looking up the definition.
 
Most importantly, the mannerisms and lifestyle of the Nepalese culture do not go unrecognized. Not only was this young boy able to live in a world where an elephant could represent his mother, but many of the characters who educate him on his journey give the narrative a very Zen tone. At the beginning of the book Nandu is an eager young boy who is excited to become a mahout, also known as an elephant driver. It is only through the advice of his father, his school teacher and a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, that Nandu can become educated enough to discover the answers to solving the problems life throws at him, such as finding a solution to the elephant stable’s pending closure.
 
The narrative, besides being informative, is action-packed and does not lag. The events set a steady flow in the book as the king visits the stables and Nandu is able to drive the elephant on a hunt for the first time. On this hunt, Nandu and his friends find baby rhinoceroses and his education takes unexpected turns. Later, when he spends a night in jail, the survival of his elephant stable hangs in the balance.
 
With a storyline relatable to the beloved classic THE JUNGLE BOOK, WHAT ELEPHANTS KNOW is sure to attract many readers, but what will keep them reading is the human-animal bond, the action and the Zen narrative.

Reviewed by Angela Warsinke on May 17, 2016

What Elephants Know
by Eric Dinerstein