The Elephant of Eastbury
The Elephant of Eastbury by Andrew Gates. Art by Laura Mitchell
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together” - Vincent Van Gogh
As a fan of long novels, I will admit that The Elephant of Eastbury lingered on my desk for a few months before I read it. Assuming the book was too slender to hold my interest, I resorted to “bigger is better” thinking. However, this short illustrated poem is a covert collection of words combined with an abundance of color that both soothes and quickens the senses.
between the ears,
passing in the back of beyond…
Those first lines set the poem’s tone – sparse, enigmatic and slippery but always engaging because of the questions it created in my mind; is that an African or Asian elephant, an adult or a calf? Where is this “beyond?” Quoting more of this poem would deprive you of your own meditative experience with this book. Just know that, like a Zen koan, Gates’ poem is well worth reading, pondering and discussing – regardless of the meaning you attach to it.
While this poem is a clever lesson in word frugality, the 11 illustrations by Laura Mitchell are just the opposite. The eclectic, jewel-toned images of elephants, landscapes, children, books and domestic scenes provide a lush, colorful balance to the poem’s restraint and mystery. Most are done in a somewhat Asian style, making the illustrations a mental walk through a colorful Middle-Eastern or Indian market.
I gleaned clues to the poem’s inspiration via an email exchange with Mr. Gates about Johanna, his deceased grandmother to whom the book is dedicated. Johanna was a woman who believed in the importance of books in a child’s life. She escorted young Andrew to the library every Saturday despite his preference for swimming with her and his sister in a Connecticut swimming hole called Eastbury Pond.
Perhaps prophetically, Johanna gave Andrew a small elephant amulet from her trip to Istanbul. Could that little trinket have inspired the itch that The Elephant of Eastbury finally scratched? Read this book and let it scratch your imagination.