Wednesday 14 June 2023

Evie and Rhino

Evie and Rhino by Neridah McMullin (Walker Books), Middle Grade, RRP $18.99, ISBN 978-1-760654-20-7

Reviewed by Susan Hancy

It’s no surprise that this book is shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Readers Book of the Year award. It’s a captivating and beautiful story about the bond formed between ten-year-old Evie, who hasn’t spoken in the last two years, and a shipwrecked rhinoceros.

A shipwrecked rhinoceros – how does that happen? This story is set in 1891 and based on the true event when a ship carrying a cargo of exotic animals, bound for the recently created Royal Melbourne Zoo, capsized off the South-West coast of Victoria. The author imagines an alternate destiny for the surviving cargo. A young rhinoceros, born and separated from his mother in captivity, manages to swim for shore with six rhesus monkeys on his back. They’re accompanied by two white cranes and six parrots flying overhead. Out wandering the sand dunes, Evie finds Rhino asleep on the beach, exhausted from his swim. She thinks she has found a living dinosaur and gives him food and water and cares for his wounds. Through her kindly actions, they form an instant connection.

Evie is excited to share her discovery of Rhino with Grandpa via a book illustration. He’s her sole surviving relative after the loss of her parents in a shipwreck two years prior – the cause of her grief and loss of speech. Grandpa was a highly-respected ornithologist, but there is something about one of the bird books in his extensive library that always causes him to look regretful and it’s a mystery to Evie. Grandpa allows Evie to add Rhino to their small stable of domestic animals – a horse, a cow, chickens, dogs and cats – but only temporarily because Rhino belongs to the zoo.

Grandpa does the right thing and informs the zoo by telegraph as soon as flood waters recede enough for him to travel into the closest township. Grandpa’s heart is torn between the fact that, at some point, a zoo representative will arrive to take Rhino away versus the happiness and positive developments he is seeing in Evie with Rhino’s presence. Evie can’t bear the thought of losing Rhino, especially to be locked up in an enclosure, and she does everything in her power to keep him. As the story unfolds, side plots reveal the reason for Grandpa’s regret and the fates of the other surviving creatures from the shipwreck. The love that Evie and Rhino develop for each other mends their respective broken hearts and, of course, Evie is able to ultimately keep Rhino. It would be too cruel for the story to end any other way. But how she manages to do so is the unexpected twist, and I’m not going to give that away.

This book is going to especially appeal to upper primary and middle grade girls and I can’t wait until my daughter can read this for herself. A smattering of exquisite illustrations by Astred Hicks elegantly complements this gem of a story.

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