The Elephant of Belfast, S. Kirk Walsh’s debut novel, reimagines the extraordinary relationship between an Irish zookeeper and a young Asian elephant during the Second World War.
Twenty-year-old Hettie Quin works part-time at Bellevue Zoo and Gardens and is angling hard for a promotion. She wants to become a full-time zookeeper—a position traditionally held by men—so she can spend more time among the animals. “Ever since she could remember, Hettie had preferred animals to people. They were always happy to see her, grateful to be fed and given some attention.”
Hettie’s devotion to the animals overshadows everything else in her life. She needs it that way. Hettie’s father, “by nature a drunk, a cheat, and a liar” has abandoned her. Hettie’s sister—her best friend and role model—died suddenly during childbirth. And Hettie’s mother, incapable of dealing with so much loss, has sunk into a deep depression.
As Hettie struggles to overcome her own grief, her community, too, is struggling. The year is 1940, and Belfast is under threat, not only from the escalating violence caused by rising tensions between British Loyalists and the Irish Republican Army, but from the German air force that, rumor has it, has its sights on the city.
Amidst the increasing unrest, the zoo welcomes its newest charge—an orphaned three-year-old Indian elephant named Violet—to great fanfare. Crowds of men, women, and children crowd the city docks to watch the three-thousand-pound pachyderm hoisted off the deck of a moored steamship and lowered onto the mainland. “Hettie had never seen so many people at the docks: It was as if British royalty or a famous screen actress were among the steamer’s passengers arriving that morning.”
From the moment Hettie comes face to face with Violet, Hettie is captivated. “Hettie imagined her older sister, Anna, standing beside her, whispering into her ear. She’s your elephant. She’s the one for you.” Hettie commits to becoming Violet’s primary caretaker.
As their relationship develops, the situation in Belfast grows dire. Then, in early 1941, the German Luftwaffe launches a series of devastating bombing raids that throw the city—and Hettie’s already fractured personal life—into chaos. As Hettie’s losses mount, it’s Violet who faces the most immediate danger. To save the young elephant, Hettie takes risks that could cost them both their lives.
As the air raid sirens grow more frequent and Belfast readies for war, the pace of Walsh’s plot accelerates. Human relationships grow stronger, they come undone, and some prove remarkably resilient. Through it all, there are animals to be fed, watered, and protected. But a foundational truth is that it’s not just humans who save animals. Animals save humans. And rarely is this more the case than in times of trouble.
Walsh’s novel is inspired by the real-life relationship between zookeeper Denise Austin and Sheila, a young Asian elephant. You can read their remarkable story in Belfast Blitz: Sheila the Elephant at WartimeNI. Be sure to check out the photographs. They are worth clicking the link.
Jacki Skole is a writer, communications professor, aspiring yogi and dog lover. Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem is her first book.