Nov 11, 2013

The White Bone

by Barbara Gowdy

I don't remember now how this book first came across my radar. I must have seen some reviews of it a while back, but something kept it from actually making it onto my TBR list. Turns out my hunch was partly right- the book didn't quite work for me. But I was in the mood to read more about elephants, and a book written from an elephant's point of view seemed just the thing.

The story is about a family of african elephants living through perilous times- drought and human poaching being the greatest dangers. Their lives are dominated by a matriarchal society, which has its own rules and codes of conduct. They are highly emotional animals, with strong family ties and are often overcome by powerful memories, to the point of having difficulty distinguishing memories from reality. As the story progresses, it follows several different elephants in their daily life and travels, but always revolves back to a single one called Mud. The book begins with Mud's birth, and ends with the arrival of her first own calf.

Most of the story is about how the elephants are trying to survive the drought, searching for water, and for a rumored haven of safety, where no humans threaten them and there is abundant green food. There are legends of a white calf's rib that will direct animals towards the safe place, so they are alternately searching for that and also for missing members of their family. Because they run into tragedy (several times) when poachers shoot large numbers of them, and the family dissolves alarmingly when the matriarch dies and new leadership proves to be lacking. It was a stark reminder of how these animals depend on each other and how devastating the loss of family members must be to them.

Yet I found it difficult to get into the story, and so read most of it too quickly, in order to finish. The habit of the elephants naming themselves in a pattern of alliteration made it difficult for me to remember who was who; the ones with distinct birth names were the only individuals who retained a personality for me. Although any book with animals that communicate in language requires some suspension of belief, the elephants' mythology and mind-talking and belief in signs from the landscape felt a bit far-fetched to me. I did like their inclusion of songs, I was touched by their mourning rituals, I was intrigued by how they perceived other animals, man-made objects they came upon, and the prevalence of scent and sound in their world. Overall, though, I felt removed from the entire thing, perhaps because it described an alien way of seeing the world. That was likely the author's intent, but unfortunately I had trouble really getting into it.

And the ending is indescribably sad.

Rating: 2/5    330 pages, 1998

more opinions:
Pages Unbound


Jackie Bailey said...

I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it more than you did. I loved the reseach that went into this book and felt it really made me understand what life for an elephant would be like.

I've just re-read my review and notice that I got annoyed the the aliteration of the names too! I haven't read any other Gowdy since, but your review has reminded me how much I want to. Sorry you didn't enjoy it more.

Jeane said...

Well, it might have just been my state of mind. I've been thinking about it since I wrote that, and realize that I truly did appreciate a lot of how the lives of the elephants were described. But for some reason I didn't really enjoy reading it- so I'm not sure I'd ever want to again... thus the lower rating :(