Good versus evil, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, a vagrant elephant, and a traveling circus— this novel has all that and more: Step right up, folks.
Wright (The Sky Is Far Away, 2019, etc.) has created a superb character in his protagonist, young Hughey Gibson. By the world’s reckoning, Hughey is a naif and a dreamer. Early on, he sees an elephant moseying along the tree line of the Gibson farm (or what’s left of it). A hundred pages later, his improbable vision is vindicated, but his reputation for being a moony innocent still stands. Hughey’s opposite is Jakes McConnell, the epitome of bad company. He talks Hughey into going to the circus, and soon Hughey is accused of being Jakes’ accomplice in a burglary. So now there is no going back to Shelbyville, Missouri. Like it or not, Hughey is now a roustabout. And he does come to like it, especially when he catches the eye of Marlina Sova, the circus girl who rides the elephant. But bad luck and bad company keep dogging him until he is linked to a homicide (Jakes again). Through it all, people either believe in Hughey’s innate innocence or are dumbfounded by him. Wright is a wonderful writer (The elephant “slapped lazily across a crazed and wirehaired shoulder with its pendulous and serpentine trunk”). The big question is: What are readers to make of Hughey? Is he hopelessly naïve or naively hopeful? A subtitle might be The Education of Hughey Gibson, but what he learns seems to be a kind of fatalism and acceptance. Which is hardly surprising. This is a hard world of creepy criminals and corrupt cops, a lesson that over time he reluctantly accepts. As an apt coda, the final chapters feature the mother of all dust storms. Hughey finally “sees the elephant,” as the old idiom goes. Still, as the author skillfully shows, this world needs its Hughey Gibsons. And that turns out to be a terrible indictment of this world.
Grim doings, grim humor, and grim wisdom abound in this masterful tale; a book well worth reading.