An orphaned rhinoceros, acquired by a Dutch sea captain in India, captivates 18th-century Europe during her 17-year continental tour.
Capt. Van der Meer orders Clara hoisted onto his ship for the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. The rhino eats hay, drinks water, and “adore[s] oranges and beer.” Fish oil is used to lubricate her hide. Once home in Holland, the captain plots logistics for Clara’s “grand tour.” McCully portrays a developing bond between Clara and her keeper, who “looked deep into his rhino’s eyes and felt calm. Clara might have been homely on the outside, but she had a beautiful soul.” The Prussian king, Frederick the Great, helps fund the tour, but Clara’s 5,000-pound appetite proves financially challenging. Louis XV dismisses the captain from Versailles when Clara’s not proffered as a gift for his menagerie. Paris is mad for Clara, though: she inspires composers, poets, sculptors, painters, scientists, and even hairdressers and dressmakers, as styles à la rhinocéros become the rage. McCully’s delicately inked watercolors span double-page spreads for expansive scenes, including one for Clara’s death. Smaller spots portray vignettes, as when Clara sprouts, then loses her horn. Oranges—so enticing to Clara—recur as a motif throughout. Endpapers map the sea and land journeys, and McCully’s note provides historical context for what would be considered an inhumane display today.
For all its problematic nature, a sweetly portrayed relationship. (author’s note, resources) (Picture book. 5-8)