(previously in this series: Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure)
Continuing our journey through the career of Bill Peet, we pick up Ella (1964) this week. I had originally wanted to do the books in chronological order, but (1) I don’t own all of them, especially since a few are long out of print and very difficult/pricey to obtain; and (2) I can’t seem to find a definitive bibliography of his books in order of publication. If anyone has one, please send it my way. In the meantime, I’ll do the best I can.
Ella was such an intelligent creature
She had learned every trick that her trainer could teach her.
The crowds which packed into the big top each night
Applauded and cheered Ella’s act with delight.
She took it all in with her great ears outspread
So it all went directly to Ella’s big head.
One day, the circus folk have the gall to ask Ella to work. This is the first and last straw.
“I’m a star,” Ella grumbled, “How could they forget
And send me outside in the rain to get wet.”
Well, she gets frustrated with how she’s treated, and she broods about it for days. (Prima donna is putting it lightly.) She then decides to “miss” the train as it leaves for the next town. At the last minute, she of course panics and chases the train down the tracks. The circus leaves her behind. Things do not go well for Ella.
You’d think this might be a sweet, “learn-something-about-yourself” story, right? Ella gets a bit of a comeuppance, learns a lesson, and becomes a better elephant. Sound about right? Well, sort of.
She meets the charming Lucifer Kirk. He’s this guy:
Lucifer is not a nice guy. This is the kind of thing kids books could get away with in 1964:
Early next morning old Lucifer Kirk,
The grouchy old farmer, put Ella to work.
She was hitched to a plow and harnessed in chains
With Lucifer Kirk tightly gripping the reins.
And over one shoulder he carried a gun
In case she might try to break loose and run.
Yup. At the end of a gun, Ella is forced to plow, weed, pick apples, cut the grass, collect eggs, and feed the pigs. Lucifer threatens her with his shotgun repeatedly. He kicks her if she eats any of the apples. He chases her down the road in his car if she tries to escape.
Once again, he’s not a nice guy.
Ella finally manages to escape and make her way back to the circus. But what lessons are learned? Well, Ella learns that hard work isn’t so bad when it’s not under threat of death. Really, that’s it. In the end, she’s “happy” to help out at the circus. As long as the ringmaster isn’t kicking her or shoving a gun in her face, she’s all good.
The reader learns that, if you’re too conceited, you’ve got to pay for it. And the only way out is through the beneficence of a third party (in Ella’s case, Lucifer’s dog). In the end, we’re told that Ella’s experiences helped to “unspoil” her. I don’t know–seems like a rather harsh lesson to me.
Verdict? Bill Peet’s art certainly holds up here. And this is the first time we encounter some of his truly iconic farm and train imagery. Unfortunately, I can’t say the message holds up as well. Ella’s treatment is overly cruel, and the lessons are rather flimsy. This story was basically recycled for 1984’s Pamela Camel, but that later story carries with it a much more powerful message. Still, even the worst Bill Peet book is a treasure. This might not be his best, but it’s still a spectacular book.