Jimmie Peever (in goaltender pads) is the central character in Keith Powell’s ‘In The Shadow of Elephants.’

Booknotes: The astonishing story of Jimmie Peever

Mike Selby

It was the summer of 1926 when a dozen or so elephants broke free of their circus chains and scattered into the woods surrounding Cranbrook. While most were caught fairly quickly, one notable one remained free for several weeks before being recaptured and then rechristened as Cranbrook Ed by then Mayor T.M. Roberts.

I first heard this story way back in the late ‘70s, when the librarian at our school (T.M. Roberts—named after said mayor), read to my class from Fred J. Smyth’s ‘Tales of the Kootenays.’ Probably the only thing harder to believe than a herd of elephants roaming around Cranbrook is that my elementary school had a full time librarian. (Although study after study has demonstrated that “students achieve higher levels of literacy, reading, learning, problem-solving and technological skills” when their school has a librarian, the provincial government has not felt this way in some time.)

I never cared much for this story. My ten-year-old sensibilities found it incredibly boring. (a much better story would be if the elephants had never been caught, and— through their inherited woolly mammoth DNA — would somehow survive our winters. Some type of snow elephant would today be as common as our city deer.)

And of course, I was wrong. The Great Cranbrook Elephant Hunt is one hell of a story, when told in its entirety, which Keith Powell does in his latest book ‘In the Shadow of Elephants.’

Powell takes this familiar piece of local history and mixes it with a completely unknown one to tell a remarkable story. Jimmie Peever is the unknown aspect—a one-armed hockey goalie and baseball pitcher, hailing out of Kimberley in the 1920s. The elephants I know of, but I have never heard of this local sports legend. This is odd. My sisters and I were the fourth generation of Selbys living in Cranbrook, with my paternal grandparents living and working in Kimberley for their entire adult lives. No one has ever mentioned Jimmy Peever to us at all.

Which is our loss. Not only does Peever play both these sports, but he excels at them. Consider that for a moment. Both hockey and baseball rate fairly high as sports one needs two arms to play. Yet Peever’s ability at both was exceptional, so much so that many of the press clippings Powell discovered about him forget to mention that he only has one arm.

By charting Peever’s life up until 1928, Powell gives readers a grand tour of historic Cranbrook, Kimberley, and most of the communities surrounding the two. CPR, Cominco, and what would later become Tembec all loom large in the story, as does Dr. Green at the St. Eugene Hospital (which became the Tudor House before it burned down).

He also gives the reader one maddening yet undisputable fact. Not only does Jimmie Peever disappear from the sport pages in 1928, but he also disappears from memory. What happened to him? Powell has been unable to discover anything about him past that year, and no archive or historical record mentions him again. One would think a story about someone who didn’t let a missing arm stand in the way of excelling at not one, but two sports would be one worth repeating. There is a real mystery here. Why do we know that Cranbrook Ed continued to perform after his recapture, was sold to another circus company in 1930, appeared in the 1934 motion picture ‘Clive of India, was sold again two years later to a zoo in San Francisco where he was shot to death by police, yet know absolutely nothing about Peever after 1928?

While the history of Jimmie Peever and the Great Elephant Hunt intersect at the same place in time and location, it remains unknown if Peever took any interest at all in it. Although a historical novel, ‘In the Shadow of Elephants’ weaves the two stories so expertly, one is unable to discern from fact and fiction. While this column rarely recommends books, there is so much personal nostalgia on every single page that anyone who grew up in our area at any time will be captivated by Powell’s latest work. He is an excellent writer, and — like his previous novels — the most astonishing parts of the book always turn out to be true.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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