Elephant Run

by Roland Smith (2007)

Our first offering from the prolific, young adult adventure writer, Roland Smith.

Elephant Run tells the tale of Nick Freestone.  His mother lives in London.  His father administers a teak plantation in the British colony of Burma.  It is 1942 and the Japanese are about to conquer all of Southeast Asia in search of territory and natural resources.

Elephant Run begins as a tale of cultural adaptation.  Nick must learn about elephants, running a plantation, the gender roles, language, beliefs, customs, and practices of the Burmese natives, and the geography of the jungle.  But when the Japanese invade, everything changes. Roland Smith lays the effective groundwork where Nick must make choices about what he values and who he can protect and save. Elephant Run has everything from secret messages to a daring POW rescue.

Smith designs a rich, lean, fast-moving tale.  Neither Nick nor the reader ever get to hold still because Smith keeps the pace aggressive. Everything you learn about elephants – like the koongyi, the elephant scouts that shepherd other elephants – turns out to matter. And Nick must meet and decide whom to trust from among a fascinating array of native characters, like Hilltop, a wandering sage and ‘elephant whisperer,’ and Tung Lei, nicknamed ‘the Tiger’s Breath,’ a true Burmese Robin Hood. Even the Japanese characters are interesting, from the prison commandant to the curious officer who speaks in haiku.

Smith has taken a tale that teaches and relies on history, thrust it into a racing adventure story, and placed it in the lap of a young man’s coming of age story as Nick confronts the legacy of his ancestor’s achievements.  All of which puts Nick – and the middle school reader – smack dab in the middle of events that determine what sort of young man he really is.

Elephant Run provides a middle school with a fine way to learn and explore each of these literary levels – personal, moral, and historical.