October 06, 2011

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

I read this book when it first came out back in 1998. At that point, I was still in middle school and had seen it featured at our library. Through the years I have often thought back on that book and while I couldn't remember precisely what it was about, I knew it involved elephants and for some reason had captivated me. Not too long ago I remembered the title and knew I had to read it again. After reading again, I can see why I was intrigued by the book, but didn't think it was anything completely spectacular. It is a novel about great sadness and I think that is what makes it stand out the most in my mind.

Mud (also known as She-Spurns, a name she rejects) is the adopted daughter of the elephant herd of the She-S's. A visionary, she has dreams sometimes of things that are going to happen, or things that are happening far away. She is newly an adult elephant with her first child growing inside her when a great drought comes to the land. To add to this hardship, massacres are occurring within the elephant herds as they are being hunted for their tusks and feet. Whole herds are being decimated at one time due to ruthless hunters.

In spite of this, the elephants have hope. A great male elephant named Tall Time has brought word of a mysterious relic. This relic is known as the White Bone and is said to hold great power. It can lead them to the Safe Place where at least they will be protected and unharmed by the vicious poachers. Trying to find this bone and get to the safe place is another matter entirely however and proves to be difficult. Mud knows she must get there and help her friends at all cost, but with everything against them along the way she is no longer certain they will all get there alive.

The characters in this novel can't be rated like other characters. They are elephants. And while they are somewhat anthropomorphic they are definitely written as an alien creature with dreams, stories, and personalities all their own. Mud in particular, is an interesting being in that she has mixed feelings about everything and is a bit of a loner. In most elephant herds this is unheard of. It makes her unique in a story already full of strange characters.

The writing takes some getting used to in this. The elephants are able to talk through their minds and all the different herds of elephants have their own naming system. Not to mention that other animals have their own names and thoughts that are translated through the elephants speech. It can become very confusing at times. Despite this, Gowdy manages to convey a deep sense of depression and sadness in this book. The plight of the elephants is not a happy one and there are plenty of descriptions and happenings to remind the reader of this. Some of the language in this book is very descriptive. To a weak stomached or sensitive reader I would advise being careful as there are talks of eating feces, elephant's sexual parts, and other more squeamish subjects littered substantially throughout the entire book. Looking at it from an elephant's standpoint there is no need to be squeamish, but for us who are not elephants the language is a little more taboo.

One complaint I would have about this book is that the second part of it drags quite a bit. While its supposed to simulate the elephant's searching, it becomes repetitive and boring after awhile. I would have liked to see more interaction between the herds and matriarchs of the elephants or something to fill the void in which they are continually wandering.

Overall though this book makes the reader truly feel sorrow. Its a tough subject and hearing it directly from the elephants themselves is even more heartbreaking. This is not a good book for cheering a person up, but it is a good book for gaining a different perspective on life.

The White Bone
Copyright 1998
330 pages
Also includes a map, term explanation and family tree.

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