Tua and the Elephant is a beautiful, delightful little book set in Thailand about a girl and an elephant by RP Harris with marvelous illustrations by Taeeun Yoo. Aptly, Sara Gruen, author of the adult novel Like Water for Elephants, wrote a great review of Tua and the Elephant that ran in the New York Times Book Review in May. The prologue of Tua and the Elephant tells us that "when Tua was born, a nurse in the delivery room exclaimed, 'Look at the little peanut!' Tua, in Thai, means peanut." At ten-years-old, Tua is still very small but also very independent, resourceful and social. Which is good, because with her mother working long hours at a restaurant, she has befriended a village of people to help raise her. When her mother heads out for a night shift, Tua puts away her homework and heads out to the night market of Chiang Mai (photos of the night market at the end of this review) where she has many friends. First stop, Somachi's cart where Tua is treated to a banana roti with chocolate sauce and condensed milk. Tua makes her way through the market, greeting friends, eating more delicious treats, and running errands and doing chores for them. A series of events leads Tua to discover a hole in the wall of the night market that leads to a crowded street full of farangs - tourists. Harris sprinkles Thai words throughout Tua and the Elephant generously, but without a glossary. At first I was thrown off by this, but as I read on I realized that, whether I knew the exact meaning of the words or not, they were in perfect context and their meanings became clear. Even better, I wasn't tempted to break the pace of the story by flipping to the back of the book to look up words every page or so. And what a pace it is!
Tua watches the elephant and her mahouts (elephant masters) as they take money from the farangs in exchange for fruit to feed to the elephant. The money is supposed to be passed from the elephant to the mahout, but this elephant drops it into the lap of a mother begging on the street with her baby. As soon as the farangs are gone, the mahouts take all the money out of the mother's lap and tug sharply on the elephant's ears. Harris does an admirable job of presenting realities of cruelty to animals and the poverty that exists in Thailand in Tua and the Elephant without making it too graphic, visual or disturbing for the intended audience of this book. The potential for brutality and violence is there, but it never errupts. Harris's mahouts, Nak and Nang, are "scruffy as sewer rats, beady eyed and sharp of tooth. Whiskers grew in sparse patches on their cheeks and chins like mildew. They were both shifty, but one was long and lean, and the other was squat and pudgy." Appropriately, Harris has made Nang, the pudgy comic relief, have a conscience, if not a brain, and he serves as a foil to the more dastardly ideas and acts of Nak. While the this drama is playing out with the mahouts, the farangs and the beggar, the elephant, who knows the little girl has been following her, seems to be speaking to Tua with her eyes. The bond is formed and Tua follows the Nak and Nang to their camp where she frees the elephant and takes her to her home.
A few chapters follow in which Tua tries to hide the elephant in her Auntie Orchid's kitchen. Auntie Orchid, a great actress, singer and dancer, dramatically and cleverly enlists all of her neighbors to hide, feed and shelter this elephant in her yard in the middle of the night, and finally, morning comes and a breakfast of mangos for Pohn-Pohn is had. There is a very funny scene in which Auntie Orchid explains the importance of naming this elephant, saying, "Elephants not only expect to be named: they demand it. And they are very particular about their names. Give an elephant a name it doesn't care for, and you've got an elephant with a chip on its trunk." Auntie Orchid, who grew up in the country, knew elephants who were happy with their names and others who were not. The last thing she wanted was "an unhappy elephant in her kitchen." Auntie Orchid wants to name the elephant after a queen, but gives in to Tua who wants to name her after her best friend Pohntip, who's name means "happiness." As Tua says, "if one Pohn means happiness, then two Pohns means double happiness." On the verge of an argument, Tua remembers her mother's words, "A sharp tongue cuts both ways" and "frowns pinch the heart." Harris's inclusion of idioms in Tua and the Elephant add to the flavor of the story and to the layers of Tua's personality. While she is young and singleminded in her desire to give Pohn-Pohn a better life, she is also thoughtful and alert.
Tua and Pohn-Pohn's flight take them from the city to the wat of Chi Chi, Auntie Orchid's little brother who is being ordained as a novice monk. From there, they embark on an even longer journey to an elephant sanctuary where Pohn-Pohn just might be safe - if Nak and Nang don't find her there. But, the mahouts are never far behind, and sometimes ahead and Tua and Pohn-Pohn's fate is never clear, even when they get to the sanctuary. An exciting, suspenseful and, in the end funny climax ensures the safety and happiness of everyone. Harris's Author's Note tells of his own experience in Chiang Mai and the visit he and his wife made to the real Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, where they met the founder of the sanctuary, Sangduen "Lek" Chailert. The next morning in his hotel room, Harris began writing Tua and the Elephant. He ends by saying, "It may not be possible to look an elephant in the eyes and not want to get to know her better. I hope you get the chance to try sometime." Reading Tua and the Elephant, may not be the same as looking an elephant in the eye, but it felt very close.
On her blog, Taeeun Yoo shares photographs of the beautiful interior of the book.
More books by Taeeun Yoo:
CHIANG MAI'S NIGHT MARKET