This book is about a child named Peter Augustus Duchene. Peter’s parents are dead, and he lives with a man named Vilna Lutz, who has always told him that his sister is dead, too. But one day in the market, a fortune teller tells him otherwise: his sister lives. And an elephant will lead him to her.
An elephant? In France?
Well, why not?
What Peter Augustus Duchene doesn’t know is that there is a magician in town. A magician whose magic no one respects. A magician who is desperate to do one great magic trick before he retires. A magician who calls down an elephant, which crashes through an auditorium ceiling, landing on and crippling Madam LaVaughn… despite his continued claims that he “intended only lilies.”
And out of this beginning, Kate DiCamillo weaves together the threads of all these different characters: Peter, the poetic magician, Vilna Lutz (a man who knows lots about soldiering and very little about raising a child), a policeman named Leo Matienne and his wife Gloria (unable to have children of their own), a little girl in an orphanage named Adele, the crippled Madam LaVaughn and her servant Hans (who has a vague memory of a childhood pet dog who could do impossible things), Tomas the beggar (who sings the events of the day) and his dog Iddo, and Bartok Whynn (a sculptor of gargoyles who fell off the scaffolding and laughs hysterically ever since). And all conspire (whether knowingly or willingly or not) to help Peter find his sister.
With this cast, what does DiCamillo create? A veritable miracle. The perfect fable. (I liked it even better than her Tale of Despereaux, which was also great!)
Here are some quotes I loved—both serious and amusing:
- Peter is instructed by Vilna Lutz to get the smallest fish at the market: “Ask him for the smallest ones. Ask him for the fish that others would turn away. Why, you must ask him for those fish that the other fish are embarrassed to even refer to as fish.”
- Peter has a habit of fiddling with his hat when perplexed: “He put his hand up to his hat. He took the hat off, and put it back on, and took it off again. [A woman at the market asks,] ‘Is the child having some sort of hat-related fit?’”
- After Peter tells Vilna Lutz about the fortune teller’s prediction, Vilna Lutz cries out in a feverish sleep: “Elephants! Denizens of imaginary bestiaries!” (I nearly died! …Listening to hilarious audio books in the car can be dangerous!)
- Peter has a dream: “The dream was too beautiful not to be true.”
- Leo Matienne always asks the questions, “What if?” “Could it be?” “Why not?”
When his wife tells him to stop, he responds, “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?”
His wife, Gloria: “The world cannot be changed. The world is what the world is and has forever been.”
Leo: “No. I will not believe that.”
- “The three of them stepped forward and began pounding on the door. Time stopped. Peter had a terrible feeling that the whole of his life had been nothing but standing and knocking, asking to be let in to some place that he was not even certain existed.”
- The magician: “Have you, in truth, ever seen something so heartbreakingly lovely? What are we to make of a world where stars shine bright in the midst of so much darkness and gloom?”
It’s a perfectly marvelous fable, and you simply must read it.