The Elephant Keeper’s main human character is Tom Page, a stable boy turned elephant expert in 18th century England. Tom’s story starts with the arrival of two half-dead baby elephants on a boat returning from India. Tom grows up with the elephants on a village estate and becomes the only person able or willing to understand the mighty beasties.
As the Fates (in the form of increasingly nasty people) try to manipulate and abuse the elephants for various reasons, from ivory farms to 18th century rapemobiles, Tom ties his own fate ever tighter to the lady elephant, Jenny. Jenny is the true star of the novel and Nicholson writes her with quiet, noble humor. Of all the characters in the book, Jenny is the only one you would wish as a friend. She’s portrayed so lovingly it becomes totally believable that Tom would sacrifice human interaction to stay by her side.
Tom himself is a bit of a washout, Jenny really deserves better. Nicholson’s depiction of Tom is of a man not quite gullible enough to be a lovable naif but too dumb to be an appealing hero. Still, Tom does his best to keep Jenny safe, and considering the sad end most menagerie animals faced during the 1700s, and even today, the story would have been far shorter had the elephant been without a keeper.