The Oregonian, Portland, OR

September 03, 2008
Special to The Oregonian

'Hannah's Dream' is charming despite its predictability

Hannah is a 44-year-old Burmese elephant with a soft spot for Dunkin' Donuts. Two or three times a week, Hannah's handler, Sam Brown, picks up Bavarian creams and strawberry-filled treats on his way to care for her at the Max Biedelman Zoo. Sam's unwavering love for Hannah is the heart of Diane Hammond's third novel, "Hannah's Dream."

Sam has been taking care of Hannah for 41 years, ever since Maxine "Max" Biedelman appointed him caretaker right before her death. Max was an adventurous, safari-loving woman who, in the 1950s, turned her estate into a zoo featuring exotic animals. The friendship between Max and Sam plays out nicely in the story as flashbacks.

Max willed her zoo to the fictional town of Bladenham, Wash., where over time the zoo lost money as well as public interest. (Hammond, who lives in Bend, also set her first two novels in the Pacific Northwest.) The city hires Harriet Saul as the new zoo director to spruce up its image and increase attendance. Bossy and micro-managing, Harriet only sees dollar signs when it comes to Hannah, the zoo's most popular animal.

Sam is devoted to Hannah (he and his wife even watch movies with her after hours to keep her company), but his old age and diabetes is forcing him to retire, and Harriet hires Neva Wilson to take over Hannah's care. Neva is a good fit; she's an experienced zookeeper who has devoted her career to elephants. One look at Hannah's cramped quarters and ongoing poor health makes Neva realize that the best place for Hannah -- even at the expense of the zoo -- is the Pachyderm Sanctuary in California.

Sam agrees with Neva; it's always been his dream for Hannah to spend her days in a large, idyllic space with other elephants. Harriet, however, has a dream of her own: She dresses up and impersonates Max Biedelman while roaming the zoo giving talks about Max's exciting life and safari trips. Crazy as it is, people love it. Zoo attendance is up, and the money starts rolling in.

While it's easy to guess the outcome of "Hannah's Dream," its predictability lends to its charm. It helps that Hammond's writing never becomes overly sappy. She treats each of her characters with a tenderness that draws sympathy rather than groans. And she's no stranger to the bond between humans and animals: In the mid-1990s she was part of the rehabilitation team of Keiko, the killer whale in the "Free Willy" movies, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

In the book's opening acknowledgements, Hammond reveals the sweet, real-life inspiration behind Sam and Hannah's characters. "Hannah's Dream" runs at a quick pace but feels substantial, and the humorous bits sprinkled throughout make it a very satisfying read.

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