Warning: Contains Plot Spoilers!

The Elephant of Surprise
By Brent Hartinger



Geography Club’s Russel Middlebrook and his friends Min and Gunnar are back, and they’re laughing about something they call the Elephant of Surprise—the tendency for life to never turn out the way you expect. Sure enough, Russel soon happens upon a radical environmental activist named Wade—even as he’s also drawn back to an old flame named Kevin. Meanwhile, Min learns her girlfriend Leah is keeping secrets, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest obsession, documenting his entire life online.

But the elephant is definitely on the move in all three of their lives. Just who is Wade and what are he and his friends planning? What is Leah hiding? And why is Gunnar taking naked pictures of Kevin in the shower?

Before The Elephant of Surprise is over, Russel and his friends will learn that the Elephant of Surprise really does appear when you least expect him—and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.


(1) Life is an exciting adventure, but just how exciting depends a lot on choices we make.

(2) Being human means not being able to predict the future: life can surprise you in good and bad ways, but even the “bad” ways are important because they can make you a better or stronger person — and also just because they make life more interesting.

(3) People are rarely what they seem.

(4) Outsiders can play an important role in society and in personal relationships, bringing fresh new perspectives and allowing us to define our own beliefs much more clearly.


(1) Min and Gunnar tease Russel for “forsaking love.” Can you really forsake love? Is it true that love finds you only after you stop looking for it, or is that just a literary cliche? If it’s true in any way, why do you think that is?

(2) Russel says he wants more “adventure” in his life. Have you ever felt this way? Do you think it’s possible to have a romantic relationship with someone that is all or mostly online? Apart from the physical considerations, why do you think a face-to-face relationship is often more interesting?

(3) Freeganism is real: what do you think about it? Do you think the existence of freegans changes the world for the better, the way Wade thinks it does? If it doesn’t, is there any value in living life as a freegan?

(4) What do you think about Wade’s point about freeganism forcing people to live in the here and now, and about making people more conscious of the choices they make? Do you think you could live as a freegan? Would you want to, if only for a little while? Why or why not?

(5) Over the course of the Russel Middlebrook Series, Russel has experiences with lots of different “outsiders”: gay teens, burn survivors, and now freegans. How is being an outsider a good thing? Why is listening to the perspective of outsiders a good thing? Can someone be too far outside the mainstream? What has Russel learned by knowing all these outsiders? Now that Russel has found his place in the world with friends who love and accept him, is he still an outsider?

(6) Min suspects Leah of lying. Does that make it okay to break into Leah’s house? Should Russel have refused to go along with her? Should there be limits to the loyalty you display to your friends? What exactly are those limits?

(7) Gunnar says he’s posting his entire life online as an “experiment,” just to see what happens. What do you think about that? How does Gunnar’s experimenting relate to the Elephant of Surprise?

(8) What do you think about the fact that Wade was only pretending to be in love with Russel? What about the fact that Russel (mostly) forgives him? Have you ever felt so passionately about something that you were willing to bend your personal code of ethics? Did you regret it, or did it end up being a good thing? Can a person be too committed to an important cause?

(9) What do you think about the fact that while Wade was pretending to love Russel, Kevin was pretending to hate him? How were their actions different? Were you happy when Russel eventually learned the truth about Kevin? Have you ever made a big sacrifice for another person? How did it make you feel? Did anyone else know? Is it more noble if no one knows about a personal sacrifice and, if so, why do you think that is?

(10) When was the last time life gave you a truly big surprise? Did it change you? Now that it’s all over, do you think it was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing? Think about a bad surprise you’ve experienced in life: if you could go back now and change it, would you?

(11) What exactly is the Elephant of Surprise? Is he a good thing or a bad thing? What would life be like if we knew all the surprises in advance? Would it make the human experience fundamentally different? Would it be better or worse?


(1) Explore foraging; learn what native plants and (if available) seafood are edible in your area. In consultation with an expert, collect and sample the native food!

(2) Learn about homelessness in your own community. Visit a homeless shelter and talk to people who have experience with homelessness.

(3) Study waste and waste disposal in your community. Examine the garbage created in your classroom, chronicling it from its “creation” to its very end.

Brent Hartinger