The Night the Elephants Cried: A Story of the Tsunami. Nancy H. Murray. Hart Street Publishers (Jacksonville, Florida). 2011. 171 pp.
One of life’s intriguing questions concerns how one faces a catastrophic experience. Would it overwhelm or would one discover unexpected inner resources? Nancy H. Murray’s young adult novel, The Night the Elephants Cried: A Story of the Tsunami, presents the compelling story of a young man who discovers of just what stuff he is made during the 2004 tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand.
Jerry Edmund’s personal tsunami, however, occurred two years earlier, with the death of his mother. His struggle to regain balance – to explore his emerging curiosity about the world around him and to reweave the torn fabric of his family – provides a beautiful counterpoint to the natural devastation that will also need long, slow rebuilding.
Murray develops her characters and plot with great delicacy. We follow Jerry, his sister, and his father, from London to Thailand where they spend the Christmas holidays on the Thai island of Phuket. They befriend an American girl and her artist-mother and together explore various aspects of the island, in a delicious contrast of three cultures. Not the least of this mélange is Phuket’s wonderful elephants with which Jerry develops a great affinity.
A significant thread of this book is about the elephants. Through Jerry’s eyes, the reader learns about their extraordinary intelligence and the bonds they form with their human keepers. A particularly poignant section depicts the hours before the tsunami hits, when the elephants tethered on the beach can obviously sense impending calamity but are unable to communicate it.
If there is any criticism of the book, it is the speed with which the devastation of the tsunami is described, immediately followed by the story’s culmination. One appreciates that Murray has painted a horrific event in the light of a heroic response, careful not to overburden a young reader with too much graphic detail; however, given the methodical crafting of the story up to this point and the momentousness of the experience in the characters’ lives, the reader is left a bit breathless by how quickly it concludes.
This is, however, a delightful story that youngsters will take to heart. One character is in Thailand to paint pictures of the elephants for the Asian Elephant Relief Project, a fictional effort to help restore the natural habitat of the elephants. While there is no such actual organization, Murray has developed a blog – Trunk Calls – in which one of Phuket’s elephants “writes” about issues that concern him most deeply and a portion of The Night the Elephants Cried sales is being donated to a fund honoring the victims of Japan's March 11, 2011 tsunami.
This is Murray’s second book about resilience after a natural disaster. Gullah, The Nawleans Cat Meets Katrina, follows the adventures of a cat that survives Hurricane Katrina and a portion of its sales have gone to Katrina relief organizations.
For further information about Nancy Murray, to order her books, or to read the Trunk Calls blog, visit NancyMurrayAuthor.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.