What is it like to love an elephant? What is it like to have one in the house? And why would you give him whatever he wants?
I've just posted "Whatever He Wants," a short story of mine -- please read and enjoy. It's a contemporary retelling of the children's book Babar, The Little Elephant with the elephants as people -- though if I hadn't just told you that, you'd never know.
As a child I loved the old Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff. After I almost died of pneumonia in France, I arrived home 20 lbs. underweight and lay in my old room in my parents' house and made my mother read me Babar books. I was 23 years old. De Brunhoff's personification of elephants was probably the spark to my lifelong identification with those animals. They're intelligent, beautiful, they mate for life, they cry real tears, and have you ever seen an elephant dance?
But as an adult, when I read my old battered Babar books to my young daughter I was very troubled. Not just by the offensive images of Africans as savages with huge red lips, or the "imperialist propaganda" for which they've gotten so much flack. Those things troubled me, but I'm not one for book banning. Context is everything. Children are smart and, if talked to, can understand things like historical perspective -- the issue is not the kids, it's the parents who don't have the sense or the sensibility to do that.
No, when I first reread Babar, The Little Elephant, I found the plotline just ... weird.
If you've forgotten, here's how it goes:
A hunter kills little Babar the Elephant's mother in the forest, so he runs to town where he meets an old lady who gives him her purse. He goes shopping and gets all duded up, then comes and lives with the Old Lady who gives Babar "whatever he wants" including a car. One day his cousins Celeste and Arthur wander into town, naked of course, and Babar buys them some clothes and they eat pastry together. Then their mothers come looking for them. Babar and Celeste become engaged. They all take the car and go back to the forest, the mothers running along naked behind, lifting their trunks to keep from breathing the fumes. The Old Lady is left weeping from grief.
Ah, the Old Lady.
I was concerned about her -- though in later books she comes to live in Celesteville, City of Elephants and is much beloved -- but more than concerned, I wondered about her motivation.
So I wrote "Whatever He Wants" to try to understand.