'The Great Oklahoma Elephant Hunt'
Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2015 8:00 am
By Mary Newport
"The Great Oklahoma Elephant Hunt"
James D. Fife
In July of 1975, the little town of Hugo suddenly developed a problem not often encountered in Oklahoma: elephants on the loose. A driver transporting five baby elephants to the winter headquarters of the Carson and Barnes Circus suddenly found a stampede on her hands when five new arrivals bolted for a nearby forest. Three were quickly recovered, but Isa and Lilly, two young pachyderms determined to keep their freedom, set the whole town buzzing as they dodged attempts at capture.
Fife, a former University of Oklahoma language professor, has written a fictionalized version of the true story. It paints a colorful picture of the 18-day search for the missing elephants and invents a host of lively characters who bring their own perspective – and their own problems – to the search. Sheriff Hal Powers, when not leading the posse or following footprints, is battling his own shyness as he tries to catch the eye of the local girl he has fallen head over heels for. His schoolmarm lady love, Gail Stewart, is frustrated by his inability to make his feelings clear, but she may find some distraction in a sophisticated New York Times reporter or a confident cowboy drawn to Hugo by the elephant escapees.
Meanwhile, two local kids do their best to get in on the action – or make some action, if they need to. Their efforts, and those of various other townspeople, serve to help, hinder and sometimes just greatly confuse both the efforts to find the elephants and Hal and Gail's attempted romance.
“The Great Oklahoma Elephant Hunt” is a comedy of errors with an easygoing small-town style and a preponderance of Oklahoma charm. It focuses more on the Hugo community and how it is stirred by the sudden flurry of activity than on the actual work of looking for the elephants, though it does detail some of the frustrating – and occasionally muddy – tracking necessary. It also enmeshes readers in the workings of the warm-hearted Stewart family and their attempts to boost Gail's love life, feed an army of unexpected visitors and keep a handle on the inventive pranks of youngster Shane.
The story is told through the eyes of many different characters, minor and major. Nearly the entire town gets a turn to talk, but what could have been a muddle of conflicting perspectives is handled skillfully. The spotlight passes comfortably from one endearing local to another with effortless grace, leading to a panoramic view of events and a pleasant feeling of small-town cohesiveness.
The book is suffused with a rich appreciation and deep affection for Oklahoma, from its geography and history to its unpredictable climate and equally perplexing residents. This lends a cozy feeling to the narrative but also sometimes leads the author into colloquial tangents and country cliches that distract from the action and derail the flow of the plot. Despite these occasional rough departures, the gentle pace is easily picked back up again. All in all, “The Great Oklahoma Elephant Hunt” is a sweet, funny read with a placid gait and a satisfying conclusion.