The Elephant of Belfast
- By S. Kirk Walsh
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen
- March 26, 2022
A zookeeper in wartime Northern Ireland attempts to protect her charges.
Violet, a 3-year-old elephant weighing 3,000 pounds, is lowered to the ground at the Belfast docks after a long sea voyage from Ceylon. Hettie Quin, a zookeeper at the Belleview Zoo and Gardens, waits with her boss, zoo director Mr. Wright, and her fellow zookeeper Ferris.
“A crane and a system of chains and pulleys elevated the animal from the deck of the moored steamship. The elephant’s trunk coiled up and then unfurled like an opening fist. There was a hollow trumpet call. The crowd — women, men, children, sailors, dockworkers — let out a collective gasp, their gazes following the orchestrated movements of the hoisting operation. Hettie had never seen so many people at the docks; it was as if British royalty or a famous screen actress were among the steamer’s passengers arriving that morning.”
It is 1940, and so many young men have been called up that Hettie, now 20, has gained her life’s dream to be a zookeeper, a career not usually available to women at that time. She helps guide Violet on the long walk to the zoo, but not without mishap. Violet, spooked by a traffic policeman’s whistle, creates havoc at a greengrocery as she guzzles a sizable portion of the proprietor’s stock and wrecks the display, delivering Hettie a painful kick in the process.
Hettie is still mourning her recently deceased sister, Anna, who died in childbirth. Her mother, Rose, will not visit her new baby granddaughter or son-in-law because they are Catholics living in a Catholic neighborhood, a border the Protestant Rose will not cross. Rose’s grief and inertia are made worse by her husband’s infidelity and abandonment of the family before Anna died.
While Hettie sympathizes and loves her mother, the oppressive atmosphere in the house is almost more than she can bear:
“The smell of vegetable stew drifted from the warm stove top. Like she often did, Hettie had to resist the urge to slip back into the evening air, away from the suffocating sadness of her mother.”
Hettie works hard to prove herself and wants nothing more than to be Violet’s keeper; when the young man assigned to the task is called up, she gets her wish. Yet while Hettie is focused on her job, and especially on Violet, she is also curious about the business of courtship.
An old schoolfriend expects her to do things she finds disgusting in the back row of the cinema, but she goes along with it — maybe that sort of thing is to be expected in these encounters. However, after he tries to force himself on her, she sends him packing. Ferris is kind and sensitive, but she thinks of him like a brother. She finds her brother-in-law attractive, but that doesn’t turn out so well, either.
Hettie and Violet form a deep bond as time goes on, and the love so recently denied her by the absences of her adored father and sister is lavished on the animal. But the situation becomes dangerous when the Luftwaffe targets Belfast, home of the Harland & Wolff shipyards.
As the bombs crash down, Hettie runs to the zoo to calm Violet, returning home in the morning to find her mother safe. The authorities decree that, as the bombs fell ominously close to the zoo, all dangerous animals must be shot to protect the public in the event of their escape. Violet’s name is on that list. Hettie saw the penguins shot earlier because of food shortages, but this is far worse. Hettie witnesses the gruesome scenes of her friends — lions, pumas, bears — being killed.
To her surprise, the zoo’s director, Mr. Wright, is also distraught. When the shooting is halted for the day in order to find stronger ammunition for the elephants, Hettie resolves to save her beloved Violet against all odds and creates a sensation when she walks the animal home to stay in her back yard. The constable comes looking for this dangerous creature, so friends help Hettie move Violet to a safer refuge.
In a second, deadlier Luftwaffe attack, 674 bombs are dropped and almost 1,000 civilians killed. Many homes are leveled, but many who fled to flimsy air raid shelters also perish in direct hits. Violet’s home remains intact, but where is her mother? The constabulary and other officials are too focused on digging victims out of the rubble and identifying bodies to worry about Violet, who seems to have disappeared.
Tragedy, betrayal, and danger stalk Hettie, but Violet nurtures her as she, in turn, nurtures Violet. Inspired by true events, this moving story of two heroines — a female zookeeper and an adolescent elephant — speaks not only to the brutality of war, but also to religious tensions in Northern Ireland that remain pervasive today. The finely drawn prose is cinematic in places, and the characters are vividly brought to life with Walsh’s deft portraiture. The Elephant of Belfast is historical fiction at its best.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
D.A. Spruzen teaches creative writing in Northern Virginia and is the author of The Blitz Business and Long in the Tooth.