After ten-year-old Hastin’s family borrows money to pay for his sister’s hospital bill, he leaves his village in northern India to take a job as an elephant keeper and work off the debt. He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and hurt with a hook until she learns tricks perfectly. Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can, knowing that the only way they will both survive is if he can find a way for them to escape.
So I LOVE books about the relationship between people and animals, and thanks to the new secret project I’m working on, I get to read a bunch of them right now. And I’m so glad I found CHAINED by Lynne Kelly! This is a middle-grade book, but it offers some fascinating insights into elephant behavior that I think readers of all ages will enjoy.
Seriously, the whole time I was reading this, I couldn’t stop thinking, Animals are SO amazing! Of course, much of this was due to the author’s great skill in bringing to life an animal I’ve never been lucky enough to spend time with, though I now feel like I have! Kelly also does a wonderful job of evoking everyday life for a lower-class Indian family, without including so many details as to become overwhelming. As for characterization, Kelly does a great job of bringing even minor characters to life—although characters like Hastin’s mother and sister didn’t get much page time, I still cared about them. Hastin himself was a wonderful protagonist, a brave, caring boy you can’t help but root for, though he still makes some mistakes appropriate for his age that keep his character realistic and believable. The other workers at the circus are intriguingly complex, multi-layered characters with secret pasts that come out over the course of the story. If I had to criticize something about this story, it would be that I guessed many of these secrets rather early on, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment while reading, and I think younger readers will be suitably surprised.
If you enjoy CHAINED and want to read more about elephants, I also recommend THE NATURE OF JADE by Deb Caletti for a very different story that also provides many insights into elephant behavior.