A short debut novella, “inspired by actual events,” explores the far-flung effects of poaching with a story of an animal-rescue mission.
It’s 1981, and the Central Zoo in New York City must relocate all the animals due to renovations. However, the former “Queen of the Zoo,” an old African elephant, sits alone and emaciated in a cage. No one wants to take her in, but Maxwell Vorsah, a young Ghanaian man is determined to save her. He’s certain that the depressed creature is the same one that he held in his arms on his eighth birthday, back in Ghana, 20 years ago. Back then, he’d found her injured and alone, but poachers stole her away, kidnapping Maxwell’s father, as well. The majority of the story sees Maxwell bonding with the elephant during an overnight stealth mission, slowly gaining her trust and getting her to eat again. Kelly writes evocatively of the lonely New York night with lines such as “Streetlight from the barred window casts rays over damp cinder walls.” However, Maxwell himself remains a bit of a mystery; he’s supernaturally calm and efficient in the face of his enormous undertaking, easily avoiding security at night and acing his job interview at the zoo the next day. Kelly offers a cinematic experience, frequently using flashbacks to flesh out her story. However, she skips over an explanation of Maxwell’s actual work in the zoo. The narrative is so focused on his relationship with the elephant that it neglects additional texture that would expand Maxwell’s world. A particularly intriguing element is Maxwell’s wife, Jessie, who comes to play an integral part in the story, although she operates mostly in the background. Still, the thoughtful way that Kelly writes about the isolated elephant makes the story compelling; particularly moving is a section entitled “Elephant Dream,” which reads like a morbid fairy tale.
A heartwarming, sometimes-bland tale, but one that will make readers think about the humanlike qualities of zoo animals.