An elephant or a Beamer never forgets
Coming off a week of 60-degree days mingled with 8-10″ of snow, the Beamers traversed a strange and sometimes dangerous terrain to reach their Safe Place (Panera’s), where they would sing 175 verses of praise or criticism (OK, more of the latter than the former) to Barbara Gowdy’s character study of elephants in Central Africa, The White Bone. Where would their wanderings in search of this mythic compass take them?
[Update: Conservation biologist Sam Wasser, Univ. of Washington, is using DNA from elephant dung to help locate poaching “hot spots”, which continue to be a problem as illegal ivory prices hit $1,000/lb. and herds are still being massacred.]
If I could talk to the animals
Gowdy’s 1998 novel joins a long tradition of using animal characters as viewpoints from which to comment on the human world. Though she does play it very straight, sticking closely to her elephant characters and maintaining their perspective in almost every scene. She only allows a few “foreign” glimpses through the device of having telepathic (“mind talker”) female elephants (cows), who can “converse” with other species, permitting cheetah, eagles, and mongooses (gloriously fierce and loyal!) to add to the mythologies that thread through the book like papyrus grass fibers.
The White Bone came to the attention of Kevin from a quote in the NY Times Sunday Book Review’s “Bookends” column, where author James Parker, discussing “Who Should be Kicked Out of the Canon?” (July 28, 2015), opined, among other works, “Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone (talking visionary elephants) becomes more famous than Watership Down (talking middle-class rabbits)”. Intrigued, Kevin bought the book and suggested it to us. I remembered the book getting reviewed in science fiction magazines for having a strong similarity to “first contact” sf novels, where the issue of communication between alien intelligences is foremost in the story. However, that communication barrier also brings up the tension between making a believable alien and making a relatable alien, which are two separate but equal needs for either sf or for anthropomorphic animal novels.
The private lives of pachyderms
And we are not sure that Ms. Gowdy succeeds on both fronts. On the front of making believable aliens, we did find that her elephants are truly non-human and independent beings, with their own cultures (two separate cultures, no less, and “misfit” individuals who question said cultures included), histories, and spiritual beliefs. Jon, in an e-mail, credited the book with the creation of a detailed and impressive elephant world (if little else). In fact, most of the species present are given specific beliefs and mythologies. Elephants worship the She and her son, the Rogue (who created all the other species, including “hindleggers”, humans), and they await individual assumption to Her paradise following a good death. Eagles, on the other wing, hold that a “spirit twin” (seen in water, where elephants only see reflections of themselves) accompanies each bird and must be witnessed periodically for both to stay healthy. The problem that Beamers had was not with the world-building, so very well done, but with the lack of compelling interest to wander through that world.
Four legs good, two legs bad
Humans only appear at intermittent intervals and then exclusively as villains, poachers after ivory and “bushmeat”. Liz thought that the lack of any positive interaction with humans, or even any concrete attempts at communication or understanding, left the book too isolated from its human readers. I thought that it was a fair representation of the actual situation, where most humans would avoid elephants (fences abound in the book) and only poachers would interact with them. The Safe Place itself, seen in a vision by Mud, our most regular viewpoint elephant, seems to be a wildlife reserve, as Donna noted, where humans do not pursue but only stand quietly and observe (eco-tourists or research biologists, perhaps).
Alan, likewise, found that the concerns of elephants were well presented (“eating, sleeping, and sex”, as Kevin summarized them), but that those concerns did not concern him anywhere near as much as the book wanted him to be. Overall, the amount of pachyderm parading around their landscape seemed to leave us as lost as the elephants themselves, unsure just where to go to find the Safe Place. As Kevin put it, the narrative would have made an excellent short story. A novel seems to be too much of a muchness, which is perhaps not unexpected when dealing with the largest of land mammals. Still, Chris found it a “slog” to make it to the end (but, to his credit, he did persist).
Baby elephant’s walk
The ending of the book also left most Beamers unhappy. Nick, who enjoyed the meeting of bush elephants with the “Lost Ones” (forest elephants), was annoyed that the mysterious elephant stone carvings were never brought into the resolution as guideposts to the Safe Place. Despite all of the poacher’s rifles, Chekov’s Gun was never fired, he felt. Gowdy’s finale finds the survivors of the She-S clan heading toward a possible or mythical refuge. Given that previous sympathetic seekers like Tall Time, a bull who collected wise sayings and portents, and Date Bed, a mind talker cow who longed to scientifically test traditions, both wind up dead from poaching, Nick feared that Mud and her calf, Bolt, would also be cut down before they could reach the Safe Place. Most of the other Beamers were simply disappointed that all the wandering only led to yet one more trek on the endless plains of The Domain.
In the end, we did muster up a close split of ratings, veering either to ‘5’ for those who would not recommend the book, to ‘6’ for those who felt that the challenges were worth the effort. (I called it a Russian novel, filled with names that all seemed confusingly similar by individual, though recognizable by family membership. And people do read those classic Russian novels.) Only Kathy, via e-mail, could find herself moved by the mystery and the sanctity of the elephants’ plight to push the book up to the heights of a ‘9’. For the majority, it was too often only depressing, as Fran called it. Since the African elephant population has dropped by 50% over the past 30 years, that emotional response, as unfortunate as it may be, does seem terribly appropriate for this work. If only the bitter pill could have been not sugar-coated but simply swallowed less painfully.