Jennifer Richard Jacobson (author)
Candlewick Press, USA: May 2011; 275pp
Genre: realistic fiction
Issues: family, friendship, identity, mental health
When Jack wakes up in his tent on the first day of his summer holidays he finds that his mother has disappeared. Her car, her tent, the food, the cooking equipment – it's all gone, leaving eleven year old Jack on his own.
Any other child would immediately seek help from the nearest adult but Jack isn't any other child; and his mother isn't like other mothers. Instead, Jack uses his unique knowledge of his mother's habits to search the campgrounds for her and work out a plan that will bring them safely back together before the Department of Social Services finds out. As the days pass painfully by, Jack's anxiety and desperation increase until he decides that the safest thing to do is find his own way home. Maine to Massachusetts is a long way to travel on foot and although Jack is determined not to involve anybody else, that may not be something he can control for much longer, especially when there is the temptation of an elephant. Jack loves elephants. In fact Jack is fascinated by elephants. But can an elephant reunite him with his mother?
Although written in the 'omniscient narrator' style, Small as an Elephant is told entirely from Jack's perspective, imbuing the narrative with the boy's own gut-wrenching tension. In Jack, Jacobson captures the terrible sense of responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of the children of the mentally ill, their defensive and protective attitude towards their troubled parent and the constant fear that they will lose control of the situation. Jack's complex internal conflict – resentment of his mother's impulsiveness and self-absorption combined with intense love and fear of separation – is projected through each of his encounters with adults. He rejects or flees almost any kind of assistance or interest and shows an independence of thought and behaviour that is only present in children who have been forced to develop advanced coping skills very early on.
Jacobson obviously has great compassion for all involved in such situations and, remarkably, avoids passing judgement on Jack's mother. The slow release of information about Jack's relationship with his mother ensures that by the time it is obvious that she is far from well, the reader has become strongly and emotionally allied with Jack's determination to resolve the problem without assistance. Although Small as an Elephant is obviously written to communicate the difficult reality of the many children who have needy parents, it is a character-driven rather than issues-driven novel. There is a tremendous sincerity and compassion in Jacobson's writing, as well as respect for all caught up in such painfully complicated situations.
Hopefully by the end of the novel every reader will have developed a similar understanding towards those who are different, troubled and struggling to find balance in a world that overwhelms them.
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