Saturday, 17 March 2012

Queenie: One Elephant’s Story

Queenie: One Elephant's Story by Corinne Fenton, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (black dog books)
PB RRP $17.95
ISBN – 978-1-742032-15-3
Reviewed by Emma Cameron

Excellent storytelling and beautiful variety in illustrations pull readers inside this historic tale. Without over dramatising elements of animal cruelty surrounding our past ignorance and disrespect for animal rights, Queenie’s story tells how an Indian elephant was hunted down, taken from her home and family, and shipped to Australia so she could be ridden for tuppence at Melbourne zoo. People came from miles around to enjoy the riding experience.

Gouldthorpe’s thin line drawings of dark ink on creamy-yellowed pages, with central parts in colour, either in circles or rectangles with rounded corners, pull the reader’s eyes right into the action. The scenes reflect Queenie’s character, as well as Australia and its people in the early part of last century. When Queenie crushed her keeper to death, believed to have been an accident, thousands wrote asking that she not be put down. Due to the war and a shortage of fodder, she was destroyed on 3 July 1945.

The acknowledgements at the book’s end are testament to the vigorous research needed to build the story. It is what brings truth and life together to show how a wild animal can become tamed by humans and how the results, despite our wish to treat the animal well, are not always to the creature’s benefit. While Queenie was treated fondly by her keeper Wilfred Lawson and many visitors, some people teased and taunted her. In great spirit, she would tease back by squirting a trunk full of dirty water at them.

First published in 2006 it is not surprising to see this CBCA Honour Book rereleased. It is delightfully Australian and while Queenie’s life ends tragically, the book honours her memory. It ends with a poignant request to readers who visit Melbourne Zoo today, where they can see the Trail of Elephants along which the zoo elephants are now able to roam and swim more freely; ‘Close your eyes and you will feel Queenie’s spirit with them – playing in hideaway places, just as she did all those years ago in India.’

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