A few months ago I commented that Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson might be another quest novel. Boy, is it. I’m still fascinated by how some stories follow every step on that hero’s quest list. It’s especially interesting—and satisfying--when the novels are not fantasy, but rather realistic fiction.
In Small as an Elephant, our hero is Jack Martel. His mom, who is suffering from a bi-polar personality disorder, has abandoned him while they are vacationing in Acadia National Park. Here’s Jack’s call to adventure: He must find his way home (Boston), but doesn’t want to alert any authorities for fear that they will separate him from his mom permanently. At first Jack doesn’t want to go anywhere (he refuses the call), hoping his mom will come back. But other campers start to notice his being alone and he knows he must leave. He discovers the free bus system that transports people around Mt. Dessert Island and eats at a restaurant where someone tells him where his mom might have gone (supernatural aid). Jack has now ventured into town and is learning to survive on the streets (crossing that first threshold and finding himself in the belly of the whale).
(An aside here, my boys and I love Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, and Mt. Dessert Island. I wish we could vacation there every year. We’ve been to many of the places Jack mentions, and we took a great whale watching tour from there.)
Jack travels a road of trials as he attempts to find his way home and receives help from a young girl (the goddess). There is no calling of the flesh in a sexual way, but he does learn to steal food. Jack gains greater understanding of his mom’s problems and finds something to keep him going: Somewhere in Maine is Lydia the Elephant and Jack loves all things involving elephants. The boons he receives are rides from kind strangers and special help from a man named Big Jack.
Jack does find Lydia and also finds that he is angry at his mom (refusal of return). He has to come to grips with these feelings for his mom and his feelings for his grandmother, who has been searching for him and who he thinks is evil because of things his mother has said. But his grandmother knew how to find him. She, along with Big Jack, provide his rescue from without and help him to cross back into the real world. Now Jack knows that he can trust her, and maybe even live with her depending on his mom’s condition. He’s has the freedom to live his life.
I worry that I may have taken all the joy out of reading this book by dissecting it this way. I hope not. It’s a very good book and Jack is a well-thought-out hero. His trials are believable and the ending isn’t sappily perfect, but rather just right.