And now, Scary-Crayon reviews...
Barbara Gowdy's
The White Bone
by: Wes

Admittedly, the first time I picked up Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone with intent to read, the first few pages turned me off to the book. Not because the story is difficult to get into at first -- quite the contrary, provided one's in the right mindset -- but those first few pages don't consist of story. Instead (following the usual praises, copyright info, etc., of course), the opening pages of the novel consist of a map of the territory covered in the book, complete with markers and brief notes of the events that took place there, which instantly made me hesitant to continue.

See, I am notorious for my pitiful sense of direction -- I've been known to lose myself for hours in areas I've visited on at least a weekly basis (shades of Ryoga...) -- and when presented with a map, as I was here, I check my position constantly in order to make sure that I know exactly where I'm going -- and so it is with literature as well (I had the same problem with Tolkien's The Hobbit). As I began to read The White Bone, every time an elephant scented this way or glanced at a tree or walked over to a nearby lake for a drink, here I was flipping back to the map, trying to locate the exact spot and take note of the surroundings so that I did not lose the The White Boneelephant. Additionally, following the map yet before the story begins, the novel also contains family trees depicting the lineage of several elephant clans and even a glossary to help the reader decipher the elephants' terms for various other creatures. Here as well, the instant a certain character was mentioned, here I was combing the family tree, trying to place the elephant and note well the nature of its relations, and even before I began reading the story I was trying to memorize the contents of the glossary. As you can imagine, I tired of all of this pretty quickly, and so I was forced to put the book down and turn my attention towards less daunting material.

Had I continued on, however, I would have found -- as I did later, when I took up reading the book during my public transit commutes and therefore wasn't in a setting most conducive to my obsessive reference-checking inclinations -- that these foremost additions are really unnecessary for understanding the text of The White Bone. True, if you care to know where a character is at all times in relation to other locales in the book, the map may be helpful, but one need not be a master tracker or an expert navigator (or even cognizant of the characters' precise positions) in order to follow the progress of the elephants through Gowdy's compelling tale of culture and hardship on the African savannah. The glossary is a helpful addition, true, but the third-person omniscient narration primarily refers to animals by using our terms for them, such that the surrounding text often denotes that when an elephant speaks of, for example, a "trunk-neck," it is the vulture circling overhead to which it refers. But of these introductory tools, only the elephant clan family trees are exceedingly useful, since there are enough elephants in the story and because the nature of their relationships does help to explain their various attitudes towards one another. True, these relationships are noted often enough in the story, but with names like She-Sees and She-Screams and She-Spoils and She-Snorts, I found it easy enough to get the cows mixed up. Until the latter portion of the book, when the characters are fewer and their personalities alone distinguish them, I found that the descriptions of the cows were the best way to tell them apart -- unfortunately, the unique physical features of the cows aren't noted on the family tree, thereby limiting its initial usefulness (at least for me).

But these are comments on the guides presented in the foremost pages of the book -- not a review of the text itself. And what a story! In The White Bone, Gowdy undertakes to tell the story of a herd of elephants in search of a mystical artifact -- "the white bone" -- that will lead them to The Safe Place, a land where green things to eat are always in abundance and humans do not brutally slaughter the pachyderms for their ivory. In doing so, the author actually creates an elephant culture, rife with customs and hierarchies, myths and superstitions -- even religion and magic play significant roles in the lives of the elephants! Moreover, the scope of these innovations expands beyond the elephant herds. For example, each elephant clan has a "mind talker" -- a cow that can communicate with other elephants and even other species of creature through telepathy -- and through these interspecies conversations the reader also learns much about the customs and rituals of the other creatures of the savannah. It is very interesting indeed that, in Gowdy's Africa, every different creature seems to think itself the ideal, as evidenced in their names for their species. Rhinos refer to themselves as "peerless"; wildabeests refer to themselves as "ideal"; the mongooses refer to themselves as "flawless". Even the elephants are not exempt from this vanity, as they call themselves She-ones and believe themselves to be the sole creations of the divine She (think God), whereas all other animals were created by Rogue (comparable to Satan). And, as we humans are guilty of similar vanities, seeing our peculiar customs mirrored in those of fictional animal cultures might lead one to partake in a bit of critical self-reflection. The other various myths and beliefs that comprise the animal customs and elephant religion (for example, the idea that humans are fallen elephants, cursed and deformed for violating the She's divine law) are no less thought-provoking.

''I see dead people.''

And while Gowdy's fictional anthropology is interesting enough in itself, what makes it even more compelling is that much of it appears to be based on research and the actual habits of elephants. There are numerous examples of this -- and I am no expert on elephants, so I wonder about other inclusions and if they actually have a factual basis; are elephants really known to dress their wounds with tree bark and hyena dung? -- but the most memorable one, in my opinion, was the legend of "the Lost Ones," a tribe of elephants that long ago retreated into the forests north of the savannah long ago and, though never seen again, was thought to still dwell there somewhere. Descriptions of these elephants -- smaller in size, with smaller ears -- put me in mind of Indian elephants (which still would have been pretty cool), but a bit of research reveals that there actually is a second species of African elephants with these characteristics -- the African forest elephant (as opposed to the African savannah elephant, the more common and well-known of the two species). And, well, it's pretty nifty to see scientific facts like this reflected in the mythology of the elephants, even though in real life (I presume) the African forest elephant lacks eyes that glow with green light and the ability to see into the future.

This is to say nothing about the narrative itself, which would be a heartrending story worth telling even without these qualities. The story of a once prominent family nearly wiped out by a brutal enemy, forced to wander through deserts and barren wastelands ravaged by fire and senseless slaughter in search of a safe place that may or may not exist, set upon by all manner of hardship and constantly mourning the loss of loved ones -- it's practically Biblical, if not the most triumphant tale. But though elephants may not have a complex religion and seek mystical artifacts, these majestic creatures have been driven close to extinction by poachers -- and so, here as well, the story derives a certain poignancy from the true analogues of its fictional developments.

On a lighter note, the book also supplies one with a number of oddly humorous catchphrases. For example, you might shout, "Twig-tusk!" if you want to insult someone. This is like calling someone a wimp; thicker tusks imply greater strength in battle. Or if you see a woman you particularly fancy, rather than making a vulgar comment about your desire to sleep with her, you might slyly mutter, "Man, I'd sure like to dig her calf tunnel!" as, in the elephant belief system, this is what bull elephants do during the mating process -- there is no concept of "fathering"; rather, the bull elephant simply prepares the cow for motherhood by hollowing out a space for the newborn to gestate. Or, rather than saying that a particularly courageous person has "balls," you might say that that person has "trunk." And so it goes. Even certain characters afford amusements of this nature, as one might be induced to exclaim, "I crave ice cream like Me-Me the longbody craves baby elephant flesh!" Me-Me the longbody being a "longbody," or cheetah, that lusts after the flesh of baby elephants. I told you it was an interesting book.

''An intriguing read, to say the least!'' In conclusion, Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone is an interesting tale on a number of levels and is more than worthy of a place in your personal library. Though it can seem daunting at first -- the resources of its first pages may put one in mind of an anthropology textbook -- readers needn't be discouraged; while the novel's chock full of creativity, insight, and depth, it's also fairly straightforward and easy to understand. As such, Scary-Crayon highly recommends it! A warning, however: Not only may the ending leave you in tears, but you may be persuaded to relinquish your worldly assets for the sake of elephant protection efforts.

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