Monday, August 27, 2018

Pleistocene Sanctuary: Elephant Secret by Eric Walters

I was born and raised with elephants. My first word wasn't Daddy; it was Ella, which is what I used to call them. My father had never been much for taking pictures, but almost all the pictures of me growing up had an elephant in them. When I drew pictures of my family in school, I always included me, my father, and the rest of our herd.

Since her mother died just after her birth, thirteen-year-old Samantha has lived at their elephant sanctuary with her father and the herd. Trixie, the matriarch elephant, has been a sort of mother figure, Raja, the goofy teenager who splashes with her in the pond, is like a pesky older brother, and the rest of the females, especially Daisy Mae, are like aunts to her. Now Daisy Mae is expecting a baby in a month or so, and with school vacation ahead Sam is looking forward to spending her summer helping with a new elephant baby.

Daisy Mae's pregnancy has been closely watched because she is part of an insemination project to help boost the population of Indian elephants, funded lavishly by Jimmy Mercury, an eccentric multi-billionaire who has subsidized the sanctuary generously. But when Daisy Mae goes into a difficult labor earlier than expected, Sam finds her life turned around suddenly. Jimmy Mercury flies in two expert large-animal vets, complete with a mobile animal surgery unit, and when Daisy Mae goes into shock, it becomes urgent that the baby she is carrying must be delivered immediately by Cesarean section before Daisy dies and her unborn baby with her.

I couldn't hear Daisy Mae breathing. The two vets were practically inside the incision. "We need help!" Dr. Grace yelled. My father reached down and in his arms was a mass of wet brown matter--the baby elephant. "It's not breathing!" Dad yelled. "Get me suction!" Dr. Tavaris ordered.

All at once the baby was moving, its trunk thrashing. There was a noise, a soft chirping, a cry to let us know the baby was here and it was alive. It was wet and gray, with a fringe of red hair around its head. "It's a girl, a beautiful baby girl," my father said.

"A girl, yes," Dr. Grace said. "But I don't know about beautiful. It's a very strange-looking little elephant."

For Samantha, when the odd little baby elephant begins to suck her fingers, it is love at first sight. She gives the baby its first bottle of elephant formula, and it seems to bond with her, preferring Sam for every feeding. Because of its unusual hair, Sam names the baby Woolly, and with her attention the baby gains weight and grows rapidly.

At first totally absorbed in the little one, Sam soon notices that their peculiar benefactor Jimmy Mercury has ordered the sanctuary surrounded by armed guards at all times and the local visitors prohibited from touring to see the elephants. Samantha begins to wonder why this particular baby elephant has to be kept a secret, secluded and shielded from the public eye at all times. And then she and her father learn the truth unexpectedly from Jimmy Mercury himself.

"Her name is Woolly," I told him. "It was the perfect name. Don't you like it?"

"I like it a lot. I just didn't think you'd figure it out without me telling you." Jimmy said.

"Figure out what?" my dad asked.

"That she's not a elephant. She's a woolly mammoth."

It is an arresting plot twist, the world's first cloned woolly mammoth constructed from DNA obtained from a frozen mammoth in Siberia, in Eric Walters' Elephant Secret (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2018), which changes this story of an animal-loving girl, with ordinary worries over eighth-grade dances, high school, and her father's girlfriend, into near-future science fiction. In a premise that is both futuristic and perfectly credible given the real pace of biology and the popularity of the recent Jurassic Park sequel, Walter's story will unite a wide audience with diverse preferences. And despite her awesome and fearful lineage, Woolly is a lovable baby as well as a miracle of science, a compelling character in her own right for middle readers.

Author Walters offers just enough foreshadowing to provide close readers with an inkling of what's up with this unusual baby, and there are still more exciting twists of plot ahead to keep 'tweener readers glued to the pages right to the end. With a "reveal" that will have some readers shouting, "I knew it!" and others saying, "What? Wow!", this novel is both an inventive science fiction tale and a warm human story of family relations, playing upon the parallels between humans and elephants, both big-brained mammals with complex and strong social relationships centered in family structure. With an appendix including a multimedia bibliography for readers who may want to know more about elephants, mammoths, and how DNA science is working toward the rebirth of the woolly mammoth 3500 years after its extinction, Eric Walters provides a great read and plenty for middle and young adult readers to think about.

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