Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The Elephant of Belfast - S. Kirk Walsh


There seems to be more WWII fiction around these last few years than ever before — and I’ve read a lot more of it than I ever expected I’d be reading. The problem, for me, is that the books tend to start blending together in my memory after a while because their plots are not really all that different from each other. And that’s exactly the reason I was attracted to S. Kirk Walsh’s The Elephant of Belfast. I figured that a book whose main character was a young female zookeeper who took an elephant home with her during the 1941 Easter Tuesday German bombing raids on Belfast had to stand out from the crowd. Well, it does.


Hettie Quinn is a twenty-year-old zoo volunteer when The Elephant of Belfast begins. The Quinn family has had a rough go lately; Hettie’s father has seemingly abandoned the family for good, and Hettie’s only sister has recently died giving birth to her first child. Now, Hettie lives alone with her mother, and Hettie is in bad need of a distraction, something to take her mind off the family’s recent troubles. 


That distraction comes along in the form of Violet, a three-year-old orphaned elephant from Ceylon that has been purchased by Bellevue Zoo & Gardens where Hettie works. From the very first moment Hettie helps to walk Violet from the Belfast docks to the zoo, she is in love. All she can think about, to her mother’s dismay, is Violet. So, when the German bombing raids begin, Hettie is determined to ensure Violet’s survival — even if it means running to the zoo on foot during the raids to make sure that Violet is not being completely terrorized by all the commotion. 


As the devastating raids continue, the zoo not only struggles to feed its small collection of exotic animals like Violet, administrators also have to contend with an order from the police to kill off the animals that could be dangerous to the population if they escape during one of the nightly bombing raids. Hettie is having none of it, and with the help from others who feel the same, she leads Violet away before it is too late to save her.


But how do you hide an elephant in a city like Belfast?


Bottom Line: The Elephant of Belfast is about kindred spirits who save each other’s lives. Hettie and Violet meet just when they will most need each other: Hettie, to take her mind off of the utter destruction of property and lives all around her; and Violet, to make sure that she doesn’t starve to death, loose her mind as the bombs are falling, or have to be destroyed because she has become a danger to the traumatized citizens of Belfast. It’s a rather beautiful story, really, one in which the unexpected bonding between man and beast offers the hope and love two very different creatures need if they are going to survive what is happening all around them.


S. Kirk Walsh

19 comments:

  1. I love elephants! I got to ride one once in Thailand and it was the best thing ever. They're such amazing, smart and funny creatures. And I can't wait to read this book.

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    1. They are fascinating creatures, for sure. I wish there had been more detail in the book about their nature than there was, actually.

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  2. It sounds good, Sam! I do, however, agree that there has been a splurge of WWII fiction over the last several years and that many of these books blend together. This one does seem to have a unique plot!

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    1. This one will be easy for me to keep straight when thinking about all the WWII fiction I've read in the last two years. A handful of those standout in my mind, and this will definitely be one of them.

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  3. I've heard and read a lot that is positive about this book. As one who grew up listening to my father's experiences in World War II, I OD'd on all that at some point and I'm still not really into books set in that period, but this one does have a unique take on it.

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    1. I like the ones set in that period that take a different approach to the story, Dorothy. This one does just that.

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  4. I was hesitant about this one but, I saw a few positive reviews including yours so I reserved it. It should be available soon. I like what you had to say about this one.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, Diane. It's WWII fiction, but that is not really what this one is all about. It's way more character-driven than most WWII fiction.

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  5. This does sound unique and lovely. I hadn't heard of it before, but now I think it needs to be on my TBR list. Thanks for the heads-up!

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    1. I'd love to hear what you think about it, Susan. I haven't run into another novel featuring Belfast during WWII, although I'm sure there must be others.

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  6. I've only read a few books about what happened to zoo animals during warfare- and this one sounds new to me. Definitely adding it to my list!

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    1. Jeane, there is one section I should probably warn you about because you've expressed before that the kind of thing bothers you. It gets pretty explicit about the zoo animals being culled during the bombing because the local government became concerned that certain animals could be a danger to the population if they escaped the zoo during a bombing raid...just so you know,

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  7. Well now, this sounds fascinating. Does it read like non-fiction? Because it almost sounds mad enough to be true. I don't know much about WW2 in N. Ireland but assume Belfast was a target because of the shipyards? Plymouth here in Devon suffered similarly. I'll look out for this one.

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    1. It doesn't read much like nonfiction to me, Cath, although it is all very plausible. Belfast docks and manufacturing were targeted by the Germans over several nights of direct bombing raids..much like what happened in Plymouth and other port cities. What surprised me is that "The Troubles" continued on during WWII completely unabated.

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  8. This sounds very different. I will keep an eye out for a copy. The comment you made to Jeane about the culling does make me think twice about it, though.

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    1. I'm kind of funny about that. Violent novels about people don't bother me nearly as much as those concerning animals. In this case, I found it difficult to get through that passage without thinking about how trusting the animals were during the whole thing.

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  9. I'm glad you liked this one -- I did too. It does seem the zoo keeper and elephant bolster each other's lives and and help one another during very scary times. I liked how it was simply told ... with no extravagances ... other than the tale itself.

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    1. It's definitely one of the more memorable books I've read this year. For me, the relationship between the young elephant and the young zookeeper is what made it special. I've passed my copy on to my granddaughter because I figure she will love it, too.

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