47 pages 1 hour read

Michael Morpurgo

An Elephant in the Garden

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


An Elephant in the Garden, written by British author Michael Morpurgo, is a historical novel set primarily in Germany during World War II. The book, written for middle-grade readers, was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by HarperCollins Children’s Books; in 2011, Feiwel and Friends published a paperback edition in the United States. This study guide is based on the Kindle edition of the paperback.

A poet, playwright, and novelist, Morpurgo is most noted for his many award-winning contributions to children’s literature; in recognition of his body of work, he was chosen as the United Kingdom’s Children’s Laureate for 2003 to 2005. An Elephant in the Garden illustrates Morpurgo’s understanding of and empathy for children, depicting how the firebombing of Dresden upends the lives of Morpurgo’s young characters. The novel develops themes regarding the loss of childhood innocence while coming of age, the terrible consequences of war, and the true meaning of family.

Content Warning: This guide contains references to wartime violence and antisemitism.

Plot Summary

The novel begins in February 2011 at a nursing home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town in Ontario, Canada (the specific physical setting is not identified until the end of the novel, and the month and year are established through various textual details). An unnamed nurse at the home describes herself: She is a single parent with a nine-year-old son named Karl. She also describes Lizzie, one of her patients. Lizzie is 82 years old and alone in the world. Karl spends time at the home when his mother must work, as he has no one to look after him. He and Lizzie become friends. She tells Karl that an elephant once lived in her garden; Karl’s mother explains to him that Lizzie cannot remember things clearly and that there was no elephant. Karl vehemently insists that Lizzie is telling the truth; he is so insistent that his mother begins to wonder if she is wrong about Lizzie.

On February 13, as Karl’s mother is attending to Lizzie, Karl comes to visit. Learning that the day’s date is February 13, Lizzie becomes upset; the date has deep emotional significance for her and provokes strange, sad memories of freezing cold and a scalding hot wind. Karl’s mother thinks he should leave, but Lizzie wants them both to stay. She has a story to tell them about herself, her brother (Karli), and Marlene the elephant, whom she first saw in her family’s garden in Dresden, Germany, on Lizzie’s 16th birthday: February 9, 1945.

Lizzie describes her life as a child in WWII Dresden with her mother, Mutti (a variation of mutter, the German word for mother) and her younger brother; her father, Papi, is away serving in the German army. Mutti works at the zoo taking care of Marlene, a young, grieving orphaned elephant whom Mutti loves. If the city is bombed, the zoo will shoot its animals to prevent them from getting loose and endangering people. Mutti cannot stand even the thought of shooting Marlene; she brings Marlene home with her every night to stay in the family’s walled garden and takes her back to the zoo every morning. Marlene becomes part of Mutti’s family.

When the Allies firebomb Dresden on the evening of February 13, 1945, Mutti, Lizzie, and Karli are taking Marlene for a walk in the park behind their home. As the whole city burns, they run away; they are now refugees, joining thousands of other people fleeing Dresden. Cold and hungry, they and Marlene eventually make their way to Lizzie and Karli’s aunt and uncle’s farm, where they find Peter Kamm in the barn; a young Canadian navigator in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), Peter parachuted to safety during the raid on Dresden when his plane was shot down.

Back in the present, Lizzie tells Karl and his mother that she misses her photograph album, which she left at home; they offer to bring it to her. While Karl retrieves Lizzie’s house keys from a bedside table, Lizzie sees something else in the drawer and remembers she wanted to show it to Karl. Karl recognizes it as a compass. Lizzie explains, “I first saw this compass on that day […] the day we found [Peter Kamm] lying there in the barn” (97).

Lizzie continues her story. Recognizing Peter as an enemy soldier who had bombed Dresden, Mutti despises him, but she cannot let him freeze to death in the barn; she allows him to come into the house with her, Lizzie, and Karli, where they find food and shelter. Marlene shelters in the barn with plenty of hay. Mutti intends to turn Peter over to German authorities at the first opportunity.

Against Mutti’s orders, Lizzie and Karli befriend Peter, who speaks German. Lizzie falls in love with him, and he is attracted to her as well. When Karli falls through the ice at the farm’s pond, Peter rescues him and performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) until Karli finally regains consciousness and begins breathing. After Peter saves Karli’s life, Mutti’s feelings about Peter change. That evening a German patrol comes to the house looking for the enemy soldier who parachuted from a downed British bomber. Mutti convinces the Germans that Peter is her older son, and the soldiers leave. When Peter tries to thank her, Mutti tells him that he is now one of the family.

Mutti decides that she and the children should go with Peter to find safety in western Germany with the American army, as he has advised. Peter then thinks better of the idea, afraid for Mutti and the children if they are caught traveling with him. Mutti insists they can fool anyone who questions them. Peter says they must go without Marlene, who will draw attention to them. Mutti replies firmly, “Where we go Marlene goes […] She is part of the family too” (129). With food packed for their journey and Peter’s compass directing the way, they set out. They must reach the American forces before the Russian army, which is advancing across Germany from the east, overtakes them. Peter anticipates a journey of four or five weeks, but it takes much longer.

In the present, Lizzie draws Karl’s mother’s attention to the sound of church bells ringing near the nursing home. Lizzie loves the sound of bells ringing, she says, because “it makes [her] think the same thing, that there is hope, that life goes on” (135).

As Lizzie resumes telling her story, the focus shifts to her family’s dangerous trek west. Food they packed for the journey runs out. Peter steals food from nearby farms to keep everyone from starving, and Marlene grazes on whatever vegetation she finds under the snow. When the family encounters other refugees heading west, Peter avoids them to conceal his identity.

After several weeks, Karli becomes gravely ill and needs medical attention. The family stops at a country estate, seeking a doctor. The estate’s owner, a compassionate woman whom everyone calls “Countess,” takes them in, sends for a doctor, and shelters them while Karli recovers. Also sheltering at the mansion are other refugees, including a chapel choir of children. A worker on the estate becomes suspicious of Peter and alerts the German authorities; when they come to investigate, the countess convinces the commanding officer not to arrest Peter. As Lizzie and her family prepare to leave, the countess asks that they take the unaccompanied children’s choir with them. Marlene makes traveling with the children easier, as they take turns riding on her back. Lizzie and Peter become closer every day.

When Lizzie, her family, and the children reach the Allies, the sight and sound of their tanks roaring up a hill frighten Marlene; terrified, she runs away. The American soldiers will not let Mutti, Lizzie, or Karli look for her in the middle of a war zone. Mutti is inconsolable. The soldiers escort Lizzie’s family and the choir children away, and Peter reports for duty. For weeks afterward, Lizzie and her family search for Marlene with no luck; she seems to have “simply disappeared off the face of the earth” (185).

In the present, Lizzie stops telling her story, but Karl and his mother insist on hearing what happens next. Lizzie responds, “Oh, a lot happened, a whole lifetime of happenings” (186). Lizzie then tells the end of her story.

Lizzie and Peter have to part when she, Mutti, and Karli are sent to a “displaced persons” refugee camp; when they say goodbye, Peter gives Lizzie the compass. She and Peter write to each other and plan to marry and live in Canada. After six months in the camp, Lizzie and her family move to Heidelberg. Peter’s letters stop coming because he never received Lizzie’s letter with her new address; Mutti has no news about Papi.

In time, Peter locates Lizzie in Heidelberg; they marry and move to Canada. Papi comes home four years after the war. Mutti, Papi, and Karli eventually join Lizzie and Peter in Canada. One evening, Lizzie and Peter see Marlene in a circus show; Marlene and Lizzie recognize each other at once, and Lizzie and Peter spend time with her before the circus leaves town. Lizzie and Peter are married for 60 years, but now she is the only surviving member of her family. Lizzie gives Peter’s compass to Karl, asking him to take care of it and share her story.

The following day, Karl and his mother bring Lizzie her photograph album and sit with her as she shows them the pictures. On the last page is a picture of Lizzie with Marlene at the circus. Seeing the picture, Lizzie is triumphant as she asks Karl if he believes her now. He replies, “I have always believed you. […] Always” (196). His mother, who once doubted Lizzie, confesses she “almost” always believed her.

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