Book Club Classics (online)
September 24, 2008

I was an English major in college, but not one of those high-falutin' intellectuals looking for symbolism and political subcontexts on every page. I liked to read. I liked to write, so I majored in English and did a good bit of each in college.

I like books about people. No, not biographies, but books that invite his into the lives and hearts of people — ordinary or extraordinary. I'm drawn to stories — to characters — to themes of friendship, personal growth, internal or external struggles. I know that's why memoir has quickly become my favorite genre. I enjoy a great character-driven novel in the same way (if not more).

Hannah's Dream by Diane Hammond is this sort of novel. Hammond delicately deals with the human experiences of love, lack of love, loss, hope, duty, growing up and growing old.

And when I this is a character-driven novel, let me go one step further and say that this book is full of characters — Max Biedelman, a sort of androgynous woman who lived in the early twentieth century; Harriet, the director of the zoo which Max founded, who taps into the confidence and spirit of Max as she tries to find acceptance for herself and financial success for the zoo; Sam Brown, a man who has given his life and his heart to two women, his wife Corinna and the elephant Hannah.

Sam has spent the last forty-one years of life caring for Hannah, at the dying wish of Max Biedelman, but he is old and sick and needs to retire. He just can't do it until he finds someone who will properly care for Hannah as he has done. Will that person be Neva, the new elephant keeper that Harriet has hired? None of the others have worked out, but Sam sees signs in the beginning that she just may be different.

This book reminded me a bit of another book dealing with an elephant (Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which I enjoyed), and also Life of Pi, which delved a bit into the debates about zookeeping. However, this novel is not the result of an author trying to jump on the bandwagon of the popularity of books about animals (Marley and Me also comes to mind, though I haven't read that one).

No, no, Diane Hammond has her own reasons for telling this story. Tomorrow in our "Books on Screen" column, the author will be writing about her work with the real whale upon whom the movie Free Willy was based and how it helped birth this novel.

I loved this story, and if you enjoy stories such as I've described, I think you'll enjoy it too.

--Jennifer Donovan, Managing Editor

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