The title of Lori Hart Beninger’s novel, Embracing the Elephant, refers to the phrase “going to see the elephant,” an expression seldom heard today, but widely known and used in the mid- and late-1800s. Loosely, it means gaining true and valuable life experiences, whether positive or negative, which either sends the adventurer back home forever changed or utterly disillusioned. In this case, it’s our heroine’s father who has “gone to see the elephant” after his wife and son die in childbirth. He leaves his daughter home in Boston with his sister-in-law and her husband. They are, he tells her, better equipped to raise a little girl.
Guinevere Walker is eleven when the book begins. She’s bracing herself against the railing of a ship bound for California from Boston in March of 1848. No cruise ship, this. It’s crowded with cargo, trunks, passengers and food that would rot before reaching the next port. The Pelican’s sails are hoisted for a six-month journey through treacherous waters around Cape Horn to San Francisco where Guinevere, called Guine, will be reunited with her father, whom she has not seen in over two years.
Spirited and headstrong, she’s eager to go. She’s put in the care of the Reverend Dunsford and his family who are on their way to China. The good reverend is taking the word of God to heathens; the wife and children are less zealous. Guine promptly gets her sea legs and makes friends with the roiling sea, the chief mate Mr. Boyle and her uncertain future.
There are adventures enough on the trip. Beninger spends half the book recounting what goes on aboard the good ship, and it’s a fine history lesson for her readers, especially when they dock in San Francisco, where it seems that half the world has arrived in a mob headed for the hills to pan for gold.
Guine is a particularly likeable character, and she seems more mature than half the grown-ups she meets, more sensible but just as fearless (and maybe reckless) as her father. While some readers will be worried for Guine as she and her father join the mobs on the mountains in the dangerous quest for gold, all of them will be rooting for her as she learns some harsh realities and survives.
It’s hard to label Embracing the Elephant a coming-of-age novel, which would limit the scope of the book. It’s filled with historical interest and a little girl’s thoughts, love, friendship and fierce determination; and when they finally set the book down, readers will understand why the title uses the word “embracing.”
Embracing the Elephant is the first book of a series that traces Guine’s life from child to adult, from Boston to San Francisco and back again. Continuing with A Veil of Fog and Flames and A Peculiar Peace, the series brings to life a tumultuous time in American history, starting amid the Gold Rush and leading up to the strife that sparked the Civil War. A fourth novel is currently in the works.
Embracing the Elephant is available for purchase. For more on Lori Hart Beninger, visit her author profile page and check out our author spotlight interview.