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, gender roles among the native people, the language, beliefs, customs and practices of the Burmese natives, and the geography of the jungle.  But when the Japanese invade, everything changes and Roland Smith has laid the effective ground work 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 really hold still as 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 veritable 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 pell-mell 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 in Burma.  All of which puts Nick – and the middle school reader – smack in the middle of events that determine what sort of young man he really is.

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