It is 1941, and fourteen-year-old Nick Freestone has been sent by his mother to live on his father's teak plantation in Burma to escape the dangers of the London Blitz. Unfortunately, the War in the Pacific is also gearing up, and the Japanese takeover of Burma is imminent. Soon after Nick arrives, Rangoon falls to the invaders, and Japanese troops infiltrate the country. The Freestone plantation is overrun and converted into an operating center for the Japanese command; Nick's father is taken to a labor camp, and Nick himself is held prisoner on the plantation and forced to work for the enemy officers. With the help of Taung Baw, a legendary, ancient Buddhist monk whose name means "Hilltop," Nick and Mya (a young Burmese girl whose father was the head "mahout," or elephant handler on the plantation) manage to escape and attempt a daring rescue of Nick's father. Riding on the back of a huge, rogue elephant named Hannibal, Nick, Mya, and Hilltop journey through the dangerous jungle in pursuit of their quest, enduring heat and hunger, evading occupation troops, and navigating among Burmese natives who might be friend or foe.
Published in 2007, Roland Smith's Elephant Run is a riveting story that is notable for its realistic setting, interesting and well-developed characters, and intricate plot. The steamy jungles of Burma come alive, and its native inhabitants carve small villages out of an environment in which ferocious tigers and enormous elephants make their natural homes. Elephants known to be dangerous are identified by an iron bell around their necks, so that villagers will know to get out of the way when the behemoths meander by. For the most part, however, these usually gentle creatures work side by side with their skilled mahouts, moving logs and helping to build the trappings of civilization. The characters, especially Nick and Mya, are multidimensional; Nick begins the narrative as a callow, physically pampered city boy, but emerges as a hardy youth capable of surviving in the unforgiving land almost as well as any native. Intelligent, athletic Mya chafes at cultural traditions that prevent women from becoming mahouts. The plot itself is suspenseful and action-packed, and includes audacious disguises, a desperate and ingenious rescue plot, a terrifying flight through the jungle on elephant back, and a secret hiding place built into the old plantation house. The fast-moving pace of the story along with its ample substance make this book an ideal choice for reluctant readers.
Elephant Run is especially valuable in the canon of young adult literature because of its historical accuracy and its examination of the effects of colonization and forced occupation upon native populations. The people of Burma, as represented especially by the mahouts in the narrative, have long existed under the rule of British imperialism, and their allegiances are torn when the Japanese arrive, promising to free the Burmese from their oppressors. When they discover that life under the notoriously brutal regime of the Japanese military is even worse, the victims find themselves victimized yet again; loyalties are constantly changing, and it is impossible to tell who can be trusted. It is notable that, even as he depicts the horrific treatment meted out upon prisoners of war and the native Burmese alike by the Japanese occupation forces, the author refuses to stereotype. Japanese commanders Sergeant Sonji and Colonel Nagayoshi, who exhibit glimpses of tortured humanity, are pawns within a barbaric system of shifting power, where mistakes are not tolerated, and the consequence of failure is death.