This is one effed up family. White Elephant by Catherine Cooper follows mother Ann, father Richard and son Tor as they struggle to navigate their new world in Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war there. I found this a really fascinating premise for a novel; three white people are transplanted from their middle class life in Nova Scotia to a treacherous, poverty-stricken part of Africa, and as you would probably suspect, it’s difficult for them. It’s not difficult for the reasons you would expect though; everyone in this family is severely unhappy, so when they add the daily challenges of living in a place such as Sierra Leone, their problems only multiply.
Originally,they move for a positive reason, because Richard is a doctor and has set up a hospital to help treat the poor along with a classmate from school. But when he gets there, he finds people unwilling to drop their cultural beliefs (female circumcision, herbal treatments, fear of witches, etc.) in exchange for the acceptance of modern medicine, so Rich is disgruntled with his situation at work. His home life is not much better because his wife Ann is convinced the house they live in is making her sick, and she’s still bitter about Richard’s affair back in Canada. On top of this, their son Tor is a real asshole (I can say this now, I’m a parent!). He’s gone on a hunger strike to try to force his parents to move back to Canada, and other than being insanely bored, he’s found a sick pleasure in causing animals pain. Richard is so fed up with Tor’s behaviour that he’s begun physically abusing him. So…not an ideal situation all around.
What I found very unique about this book was Cooper’s focus on the family. There are so many plot lines that could have come out of the Sierra Leone setting, but she only uses their environmental strife every once in a while. Flashbacks to the family’s past is what gives us the larger context here, and it provides tiny clues to why these people act the way they do.
I’m racking my brain trying to come up with a theory on what Cooper is trying to say by marrying these two situations; what is she trying to say about this family, and the affect that a place like Sierra Leone has on them? This move of theirs hasn’t destroyed them, it’s simply moved their destruction along at a faster pace. As I take a few days to absorb everything I read, something I can say definitively is that the change of lifestyle for all three characters simply stripped away all distractions for them, which cast the family into a darker place, but allowed them to see things more clearly in the end. Without giving anything away, I will say the book ends with some hope, although more so for the family, than the country of Sierra Leone.