The Forty Elephants: 1920s Historical Fiction
The Forty Elephants by Erin Bledsoe
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published Aug. 2022; 298 pages
I first heard of this book on Marlene's Reading Reality blog. I'm very glad I made a note of it!!
First Sentence: "Some steal out of desperation. Some steal because they like it."
This debut novel is inspired by the real story of Alice Diamond & the Forty Elephants - an actual gang of women that robbed and pick-pocketed their way around 1920s London. Alice Diamond lives in the slum called The Mint with her family and when her dad gets sent to prison, she steps in as the temporary "head" of the family and neighborhood. This comes with lots of problems.
There are problems within the family as her brother (Tommy) is a bit of an unreliable wastrel. He causes problems right and left and she banishes him from the family, and then helps, then banishes, then helps. It's one of 'those' kinds of relationships. Alice also has a 16 year old sister that she tries desperately to protect from the neighborhood violence and Alice's role in it. That doesn't go well either.
Tommy runs up a huge debt with a gang. In order to save Tommy, Alice agrees to pay the debt and in order to do that reluctantly agrees to join the Forty Elephants even though it goes against everything she's been taught by her dad. It's very interesting to feel the push/pull of Alice's decisions and learn about the ins and outs of this first ladies' gang. One thing leads to another and she finds herself in the position of taking over the Forty Elephants. There's lots of background about the planning of a big heist, sort of ala Oceans 11 or The Italian Job.
This book is a page-turner with lots of action and a little tragedy. There's love, betrayal, loyalty, fear and fearlessness but mostly it's the story of a determined woman. One who wants the same treatment as a man, who wants to make business decisions and deals and get the respect for her decisions. Alice is a woman with a strong code of honor and of what's right and wrong. Because The Mint is basically a gang controlled neighborhood, holding that power, just like a man, requires fighting and violence.
I wasn't surprised at the violence. It is, after all, a book about criminals. I was surprised that she survived some of the troubles. Generally I felt like the book was evocative of 1920s London with the hair, dress, and even some language being reflective of that era. But, I didn't really feel like The Mint was a slum. Or that the competing gangs were SO dangerous.
I enjoyed Alice Diamond even though I can't imagine the circumstances she grew up in and survived, but her drive, her ambition, her need to be respected and appreciated, her talent were mesmerizing. She and her best friend Maggie are definitely well defined characters, but most of the rest of the characters are a bit light. A very readable and enjoyable walk from the slums to the poshest, wealthiest homes of London. Hope you enjoy this glimpse of history being made - there are a couple more books about Alice Diamond due out in 2023, so it might be fun to read a couple and compare. That's what I plan to do.
This book fits the following reading challenges: