Life should be a picnic for Peter, a bright 14-year-old footballer who lives off the coast of Denmark. But then his eccentric parents—a vicar and an organist—decide to increase church attendance through controlled miracles, a quest that leads to their disappearance. When Peter learns that their acts could mean prison time, he and his two older siblings, Tilte and Hans, set off to save their family.
The tale takes the three clever siblings around their fictitious Danish island of Finø (stops include a brothel and a castle). Despite the chaos of travel, Peter finds time to ruminate on difficult facts of life: his eventual separation from his siblings as they become distinct from their three-buddy circle; the loneliness he’s been courting; and his future death. Youth can be painful and sad, and author Peter Høeg does not trivialize the children’s emotions.
Høeg is best known for his modern classic Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a literary thriller. The Elephant Keepers’ Children—which would also appeal to YA readers—is both suspenseful and a coming-of-age adventure, recalling Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011). Here, the adults are the Toms to the children’s Jerrys, both dazed (imagine stars circling their heads) and foiled by disguises. Middle sibling Tilte calls her parents “elephant keepers,” meaning they have an unfulfilled desire that’s bigger than they are: the desire to know God. Pairing complex ideas with youthful scheming, The Elephant Keepers’ Children is both somber and vibrant, just like childhood itself.