Set in Scotland and northern England, BBC journalist Kerr’s middle-grade debut is based on the true story of a marketing stunt in 1872, when an elephant called Maharajah was ridden from Edinburgh to Manchester.
When brown-skinned orphan Danny, a mute, mixed-race street urchin, is dispatched to an Edinburgh auction by a criminal gang leader, he accidentally helps Mr. Jameson, owner of the Belle Vue menagerie, buy Maharajah. Maharajah is owned by a rival traveling circus that is closing down. When Jameson accepts an impossible wager—to walk Maharajah from Edinburgh to Manchester in less than seven days, or lose everything—he offers Danny the job of doing so, as he observes that Danny and Maharajah seem to immediately have a special connection. He transforms Danny into a bejeweled “Indian prince,” or Prince Dandip. As he rides Maharajah from Scotland to England, even Queen Victoria takes an interest. Danny becomes a celebrity, but his past entanglements, including a notorious gang leader, are following, desperate to ruin him. Given that the novel is based on true events, readers may know Danny and Maharajah do reach Manchester (a skeleton of the real Maharajah is on display in Manchester Museum). Yet Kerr provides ample historical detail and fictional twists to keep readers engaged to the end. Her measured third-person narrative develops Danny and the secondary cast with affection and nuance, Danny’s consciousness of his difference and the slights he suffers because of it ever present.
A rollicking, charming historical thriller. (Historical fiction. 8-12)