A review of Jackie’s Boy, a post-apocalyptic Huck Finn:
Eleven-year-old orphan Michael scrabbles to survive the violent chaos after deliberate plagues killed 99% of the world’s population. He still writes letters to Mom. Jackie, an elephant bioengineered to speak, has a big chip on her shoulder against humans. But Michael can free her from a besieged zoo and act as her hands. Together they journey through the hell of post-apocalyptic America in search of a herd for Jackie and a community for “Jackie’s Boy.”
They learn that anybody with source material and a basement lab was able to build a plague, for reasons ranging from religion to politics to broken romance to just plain curiosity. Now Michael and Jackie must navigate the scattershot remnants, not to mention weaponized agribots, hungry Ichthyosaurs, Komodo dragons, and bad men with guns.
Searching for a new home in America’s devastated Heartland, Jackie and Michael may just have the heart and courage it takes to build one….
I was lucky to get an early read of this fabulous novel, and in the months since, Jackie and Michael as fully-alive characters have stayed with me. Wonderfully creative and heartfelt, the story takes the reader on an epic journey through transformed landscapes both outer and inner.
A couple of questions for Steven Popkes:
Will you tell us about your inspirations for this complex novel? And why make Jackie an elephant?
The two obvious literary inspirations were Huck Finn and Kim. My understanding is that both books are out of favor right now, but they still have a good hold on my heart. Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog certainly had some influence but not as much as one might think.
As far as the animal/human relationship, that comes from Mowgli. Hathi is one of my favorite characters. I never thought Kipling gave him enough air time.
Beyond that, I’ve been interested in elephants for practically ever. When I was living in Missouri, I went to the St Louis zoo every chance I got. They fed and groomed the elephants in front of people behind a collection of thick steel bars. I mean thick: 4 inches, the space between wasn’t more than three or four inches. That day there were three elephants, two were together. One was separated from them. The space around the bars near that elephant was marked with a fence so no one could approach it.
I spoke with one of the keepers about it. It turned out this elephant had killed someone. A keeper had abused it for some time and then been transferred to another area of the zoo. (Or perhaps he was fired. I don’t remember.)
Anyway, some years later he had come back to visit this area of the zoo. The elephant had recognized him, reached through the bars and dragged him through. With a four-inch clearance, you can imagine what happened.
That got me to really thinking about what elephants might be thinking. There was also a Scientific American article about testing elephants’ memories — which are prodigious, by the way. In fact, elephants can detect melodies, remember them and respond to them years later.
Not many animals can detect melodies.
I had been playing around with “uplifted” animals in other fiction. Not much of that work has been published. Beck, in JB, is from another story. Then, I read another Kipling story, “Toomai of the Elephants.” It was, essentially, A Boy and His Elephant. That set the groundwork for the novella.
Most of my work takes place in the same universe. JB is no exception. I’d already established the scaffolding of the post-apocalypse environment. I had Michael. I had Jackie. Then, it was just the journey south.
Buy Jackie’s Boy here: https://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/jackies-boy/