Review of the Day: The White Giraffe
The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John. Illustrations by David Dean. Dial Books. $16.99.
I was at an ALA Conference skimming through the convention center when I stumbled across the Dial booth. I was a little too late to get the hottest galleys that day, but a person can still root out a hidden gem here and there if they’ve a yen to. I think it may have been the cover of “The White Giraffe” that caught my eye first. Deep blues with a pale ghostly giraffe obviously reflecting the moonlight off its hide. I’m not usually drawn to animal stories but there was something deeply compelling about the image I saw here. “Is this any good?,” I asked the clearly exhausted Dial employee. To the best of her ability she assured me that it was a worthwhile read, so I took it home. So here’s where it becomes awkward. It may well be that in the future this is a much beloved title that no one disputes as distilled genius in a glass. Maybe. But as far as I could tell, author Lauren St. John hasn’t quite yet gotten a feel for how to write for a young audience. There are things in this book that work, but by and large they’re outweighed by the sheer mass of the things that do not. A good start, but a book that could have stood a little more editing
When eleven-year-old Martine’s parents die in an accidental fire, she finds herself bundled away from England and sent to live with her grandmother in Africa. And that might have been fine except for the fact that it’s obvious right from the start that Martine is not wanted by this unfamiliar relative. Lonely in a strange new land, one night the girl spots a white giraffe in the moonlight. And unaware of a legend that speaks of a girl who will someday ride such an animal, Martine begins to fall in love with her new home. Yet poachers are invading Martine’s grandmother’s land and Jemmy, the beautiful white giraffe, is almost certainly in danger. It will take all the girl’s strength and resilience to discover who the traitor on the reserve is and, when the time comes, realize how to rescue Jemmy.
Now it’s clear that St. John’s a writer through and through. Listen to this line: “Pale spiky thorn trees and ragged shrubs dotted the long yellow grass, which glowed beneath the blazing summer sun as if it was lit from underneath.” THAT is how you write a sentence. THAT is how it is done. Food too is described deliciously as “omlettes made from fresh farm eggs and wild mushrooms, a heap of crispy bacon, and tomatoes fried with brown sugar.” A human being could subsist on these words alone if you let them. So imagine my distress when on the next page the resident magical black friend puts her hand on our heroine’s forehead and says, “You have the gift, chile . . . Jus’ like the forefathers said.” Even if you take away the whole white-girl-is-going-to-save-us-all idea, surely there was a better way to introduce that idea.
All right. So maybe some of my objection to this title is rooted in its basic premise. White girl goes to Africa and connects with a magical creature there better than any actual African could because she is “the one”. So how much does Martine’s race really matter? I read the first chapter or so of “The White Giraffe” after reading the bookflap, secure in the belief that my heroine was black. When it turned out that she was not, the entire reading experience took a shift to the left. I had been enjoying the book, you know. As first chapters go, I may have to nominate “The White Giraffe” for Most Gripping Opening of 2007. It’s thrilling in the best sense of the word. So do we blame a book for putting a European lady in an African setting? Not a bit of it. But when it's clear that there are legends built around Martine, that's when things start to get uncomfortable. I mean, just for argument's sake, would it have been so bad if Martine had been black? It's not like we're swimming in black heroines in children's books these days anyway (and certainly not in fantasy).
There were other issues, I suppose. Martine is eleven but in terms of basic ideas like racism she resembles a six or seven-year-old more. That means that you get passages where apartheid gets a brief glossed over mention without much meat or heft to it. There are small plot gaps as well. Martine doesn’t tell her grandmother about her gamekeeper’s unnatural violence because Tendai “didn’t want to distress her unnecessarily.” It’s a literary device that’s as unnecessary as it is frustrating. Like those movies where the characters won’t call the cops, even when the homicidal maniac is threatening them with a machete. Heck, when Martine’s grandmother, a woman who (we later find) would protect her granddaughter with her life, allows Martine to go BACK into the super scary ship full of bad guys with guns there is just no good reason for it. No sane guardian would let their kid do that. And there are other moments of sheer coincidence. Grace, a holy woman, spontaneously appears in Martine’s secret alcove at just the right moment. You know Ms. St. John must have felt some slight awkwardness with moments like this. After all the book even says, “Martine was still reeling from the bombshell of finding the woman she’d wanted to see, here, in this sacred space.” You me both, hon.
But did I mention that the writing was sometimes great? That a giraffe’s eyes are described as the wisest and “most innocent” in the world? And I liked Martine’s dreams and the subplot that involves some mean kids in her school. It’s the details and the idea of a white gal being the savior of Africa that gives me the willies. I look forward to what St. John puts out in the future. A memorable read, but it could definitely have been stronger.
On shelves now.
Notes On the Cover: Can’t put it down. Credit Dial with snagging one smartie of a cover for this puppy. Artist David Dean's interior illustrations are lovely to look at too. It's a pity they weren't in color, what with the beautiful hues on the cover and all hat. A good choice in any case.
First Line: “People like to say that things come in threes, but the way Martine looked at it, that all depends on when you start counting and when you stop.”