It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for 14-year-old Nick Freestone, as he is sent out of London during the Blitz only to arrive at his father’s teak plantation in Burma right before the Japanese invade. When his father is taken prisoner and hauled off to a prisoner-of-war camp and the plantation is taken over by the Japanese, Nick eventually escapes and reunites with his father with the help of an ancient Buddhist monk, a beautiful, smart girl named Mya, a Burmese Robin Hood, a rampaging bull elephant and various people resisting the Japanese occupation. It’s the thrilling adventure tale Smith is known for, strong on plot and setting, and though the beginning is an uneasy mix of story and information, the tale soon rolls. Adult readers will be reminded of The Bridge on the River Kwai, as the threats of the steamy jungle and the brutality of enemy soldiers are twin complications in a country at war. An adventure tale that is also a family story—as is Smith’s other 2007 title, Peak. (Fiction. 10-13)
If Nick hadn't woken early and taken a predawn swim in the river, the Japanese might have captured him, too. He heard the elephants trumpeting, and then the men ran into the campground shouting and brandishing their bayoneted rifles. Nick's dad and the Burmese mahouts [pronounced ma-HOUT] all dropped to their knees. Soon their hands were tied and Nick watched them being led away. What is he supposed to do now? Can it be just two days since Nick arrived in Burma? He doesn't even know the way back to his new house in the jungle.
Nick's parents are divorced and it's been nine years since he's been on his father's teak plantation in Burma – where the tamed Asian elephants help the mahouts harvest the timber. His mother sent him to his father hoping Nick would escape the German bombing of London, but neither of his parents realized that the Japanese would conquer Burma so quickly. Nick isn't any safer here than he was in the London underground listening to the bombs destroy his apartment building.
Now that the Japanese have left with their prisoners, Nick creeps back to the camp. He gets dressed and spots a message scratched in the dirt: "Follow elephant tracks to hilltop." He starts across the river.
"Hand up! Hand up!" Slowly turning his head, Nick spots the soldier standing on the riverbank pointing his rifle . . . at him.
Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!
- Describe Nick's relationships with each of his parents at the beginning of the story. How do these evolve over the course of the novel?
- Throughout the novel, Nick is told what to do by many adults, including his parents, Hilltop, Sonji, Bukong. He disobeys them frequently. Select a few examples and describe the consequences.
- Can you explain why the wild elephant Hannibal allows Hilltop to control him?
- Mya is forbidden to become a mahout, yet she doesn't give up on her dream. How does she try to prove herself?
- Why do you think the Sergeant Major built the tunnel system at Hawk's Nest? How did he use them? How do you think Nick's father may have used them?
- Why do you think novice Buddhist monks must shave their heads and eyebrows?
- What are natshins and why do the mahouts -- and later, Nick and Mya -- build them near their homes? Did a natshin help Nick make his escape from Hawk's Nest?
- How do his wartime experiences in Burma change Nick?
- Why is Sonji's gift to Nick on his 18th birthday important?
- Why do the Freestones abandon Hawk's Nest once World War II ends?
- More discussion questions are available in Hyperion Books for Children's dicussion guide.
If you liked this book, try
- Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
- Warriors in the Crossfire by Bo Flood
- Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata
- Shanghai Shadows by Lois Ruby
- Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury
Roland Smith's website features both Jungle Jeopardy and an Elephant Runboard game.
Agua de Tamarindo (tamarind-flavored beverage).
ShweJi (Burmese dessert).