A snowy day in February and a young visitor named Karl remind nursing home resident Lizzie (once known as Elizabeth) of another snowy day in February 1945, when an elephant came to live in the garden of her home in Dresden, Germany. While Karl is instantly fascinated, his mother (who is Lizzie’s nurse) dismisses the idea as an old woman’s rambling. But once Lizzie begins her seemingly unbelievable story, Karl and his mother—and readers—can’t help but be drawn into the tale of survival told in An Elephant in the Garden, which is loosely based on a real event from World War II.
With her father off fighting in Russia and much of Germany already destroyed, 16-year-old Elizabeth, her younger brother, Karli, and her zoo worker mother know that it’s only a matter of time before Dresden succumbs to ruin, too. When the order is given to destroy all of the large and potentially dangerous zoo animals if a bombing strike occurs, Elizabeth’s mother convinces the zoo director to spare a kind and playful four-year-old elephant named Marlene (for Marlene Dietrich). Marlene quickly becomes a part of the family, and when Dresden is indeed bombed, there’s no question that she will flee the city with them.
Along with thousands of other refugees, Elizabeth, who is often hungry and tired, finds the determination to escape through Marlene’s persevering spirit. The drama escalates when Peter, a downed Canadian airman, joins the family after a near-tragedy. With the Russians always advancing behind them, the family continues its trek toward the approaching American forces. As Peter tries to avoid suspicion among this foreign land and Elizabeth tries to reconcile her romantic feelings for this “enemy,” Marlene once again eases tension and instills a sense of wonder among the other downtrodden people they meet.
A surprise, heartwarming ending reveals the fates of Elizabeth and her family. Of course, Marlene’s outcome will be foremost on children’s minds.