A World War II Drama Drawn from the real Elephant Angel of Belfast

The Elephant of Belfast by S.Kirk Walsh

Some novels are unevenly written. While the story may be compelling, the background reads like a text book. Or the setting and background are riveting and the characters are not well developed. The Elephant of Belfast is one such book. The history is informative and well done, the flow of the story not so much.

You may have surmised by now, that I love to read historical fiction. As debate rages about what is appropriate historical material to teach in the classroom, this genre can provide a wide open window to slices of history that may be new to you. To badly paraphrase a quote from author Pam Jenoff (The Orphan Tale, The Lost Girls of Paris, Code Name: Sapphire): history is not a list of facts and dates, it is the choices people make when their lives are at risk. How true that is.

While much of the historical novel is imagined, if you look at the acknowledgements, you can parse out whether the author has done his or her due diligence in researching the subject matter. That, in context of the decisions made by the fictional characters, can broaden your perspective on the times.

World War II books are very popular now. The material is rich and seemingly never ending. There have been a plethora of books about individual courage in the face of unimaginable loss, fear and destruction. The Book Thief, Life After Life, The Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, The Zookeeper’s Wife are only a few of the many. 

Counterpoint 2021

This debut novel, The Elephant of Belfast, is another one to add to that long list. Written by S.Kirk Walsh, it is inspired by the courage of real life Belfast zookeeper Denise Weston Austin, who saved the life of a baby elephant after the first bombardment of Belfast by the Luftwaffe.

S. Kirk Walsh, author. Novelist, editor, and teacher.

The history is the heart and strength of the book. Ms Austin’s determined actions during the bombing is the centerpiece of this story.  The Easter Tuesday blitz decimated Belfast and killed almost a thousand people. As a proactive measure to prepare for future bombings, The Ministry of Public Security ordered large zoo animals to be shot. They were afraid that during another blitz, the chance of the big animals escaping from their cages was too risky.  

Austin, in charge of a three-year-old elephant, took the elephant out of the zoo as the other animals were being shot, walked her through the city streets, to her back garden at home. Austin walked the elephant back to the zoo in the morning and to her home at night everyday for eighteen months. She saved this elephant from destruction and was dubbed ‘elephant angel.’

Additionally,I never really thought about Hitler’s attacks on Ireland. Here we experience German aggression in Belfast. An interesting part of the story for me was learning the sectarian strife between Protestants and Catholics still blistered during the war despite decimating enemy attacks. The fear of German attacks did nothing to align the two sides in confronting a common enemy. In fact, the Catholic insurgence was on the side of the Germans hoping they would succeed by eradicating Britain. 

The protagonist, Hettie Quin, is based on this elephant whisperer.  In the fictional version, she is a twenty year old whose life has recently been shattered by the desertion of her father, the depression and sadness of her mother as a result, and the death in childbirth of her only sister, Anna married to a Catholic. 

Hettie is lonely. Her mother, devastated by her husband’s betrayal and the death of her daughter, is completely withdrawn. With the loss of her sister, she has no friends. But she has a great affinity for animals. She is a part time zookeeper with aspirations to make this much more. Hettie is most at home with the animals and when a three year old orphaned elephant,Violet, is purchased by the Belfast zoo from Ceylon, it becomes Hettie’s mission to become her caretaker.  

Too many instances of abrupt changes in the characters’ actions weaken the entire book. The head zookeeper, Mr. Wright, seemed to flip a switch. The other zoo staff were thinly developed. Hettie’s reticence in forming relationships is an undeveloped stumbling block.

While I understand she was naïve and inexperienced, her passive acquiescence when put in sexual situations didn’t ring true. In one instance, she is being aggressively attacked by an old school mate but the next time she sees the boy, he is her hero and she trusts him. While I don’t want to spoil the turn the book takes, much of it seemed implausible. 

What counterbalances that is the strength of the war story and her devotion to her charge, Violet. That is where the true love story is.

During the height of the bombing, Hettie goes to the elephant house at the zoo to check on Violet and finds her pacing and squealing:

Hettie casts around for a way to comfort the poor creature. She reached into the pocket of her coat and was surprised to find a sweet bun…Hettie placed it in her open palm, and the elephant swept the roll up with her trunk and dropped it into her mouth…The concrete structure shook again…A part of Hettie wished she had never left her mother’s side and the other part of her was grateful to be by Violet’s side… She pressed close to Violet’s rounded back and draped her arm over the elephant. Violet released another soft trumpet call. Hettie reached her arm over the elephant’s broad side. Violet’s rubbery skin pressed against her cheek.

In all, I think the novel is worth the time. Despite its weaknesses, if you are interested is in this period, the feel of the neighborhoods and its habitants, the religious divide, the courage and resourcefulness of a young girl left to her own devices in time of war, and the relationship she had with Violet, puts it on the plus side.

It is these small stories of strength in the time of despair that give us a deeper understanding of the times they lived in.

Available on this website, Amazon, Barnes&Noble and your local bookstore

Jan Marin Tramontano has given us a novel of love and disenchantment, of dashed dreams and sustained hope. Sexy, unflinching, pinpoint accurate in its portrayal of parenting, this is an exhilarating work.

James Robison, novelist, screenwriter, poet Recipient of Rosenthal, Whiting, and Pushcart Awards

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