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A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk by Jan Coates

A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk is a debut novel by Jan Coates about the Lost Boys of Sudan, youngsters displaced by war.

Book: A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk, Red Deer Press

Author: Jan Coates of Wolfville, N.S.

Teacher-turned-writer Jan Coates was inspired by the story of Jacob Deng. (Red Deer Press)
Jan Coates, a teacher-turned-writer, bases her first young adult novel, A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk, on the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, children displaced by war. She started on the book after meeting Jacob Deng, one of those Lost Boys, who was a university student in Nova Scotia at the time he told her his story. Deng had been an illiterate boy from a small farming village in southern Sudan when war there disrupted his life. As he told Coates, he hoped young readers would be inspired by his determination to go on to have an education after his experiences in the late 1980s. A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk is a work of fiction inspired by his true story, Coates says.

The novel follows what happens to Jacob, then aged seven, after a band of soldiers swoops down on his village, killing people and burning the homes and crops. Jacob escapes with an older boy Monyroor, who advises him to hide in the jungle. As they hunt for people they know, they come upon a column of boys walking east toward Ethiopia and decide to join them. The story grows very dark, with the boys thirsty and starving and easy prey to lions and to recruiters who want them to be soldiers.

A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk is a story about hope and survival in southern Sudan. (Red Deer Press)
Despite the sometimes desperate storyline, A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk is a story about hope. The small group of boys that gathers around Jacob learns to be resourceful with the opportunities they are offered and to look out for one another. Jacob himself transforms from a child who wants to be a wrestler or a soldier like his uncle to a teen who sees that fighting has no glamour and the future is in going to school. The stories of the Dinka, Jacob's people, are skillfully woven into the action, as the boys yearn for missing mothers and for home.

Coates has never been to Africa and says she did a lot of research into political and human conditions in Sudan and Ethiopia and the look of the land to craft her novel. At times, the child's eye view that makes her story charming is lost amid her effort to convey these facts to young readers.  The relentless misfortune the boys face, even after they find refugee camps, makes the novel tough going for younger readers. But high school-aged readers will be inspired by a survival story set in a world so strange and alien to Canadians teens.