The White Bone: A Novel
If, as many recent nonfiction bestsellers have revealed, animals possess emotions and awareness, they must also have stories. In The White Bone, a novel imagined entirely from the perspective of African elephants, Barbara Gowdy creates a world whole and separate that yet illuminates our own.
For years, young Mud and her family have roamed the high grasses, swamps, and deserts of the sub-Sahara. Now the earth is scorched by drought, and the mutilated bodies of family and friends lie scattered on the ground, shot down by ivory hunters. Nothing-not the once familiar terrain, or the age-old rhythms of life, or even memory itself-seems reliable anymore. Yet a slim prophecy of hope is passed on from water hole to water hole: the sacred white bone of legend will point the elephants toward the Safe Place. And so begins a quest through Africa’s vast and perilous plains-until at last the survivors face a decisive trial of loyalty and courage.
In The White Bone, Barbara Gowdy performs a feat of imagination virtually unparalleled in modern fiction. Plunged into an alien landscape, we orient ourselves in elephant time, elephant space, elephant consciousness and begin to feel, as Gowdy puts it, “what it would be like to be that big and gentle, to be that imperiled, and to have that prodigious memory.”
Barbara Gowdy has an utter affinity for the unconventional. In the title story of We So Seldom Look on Love, necrophilia is exquisite rather than execrable, and her wildly funny—and wildly affecting—novel Mister Sandman invites us into the hearts and minds of Toronto’s least normal and most loving family. With The White Bone Gowdy continues her exploration of extraordinary lives, but this time human beings (“hindleggers”) are on the periphery. And we’re grateful when they’re not around, since this gives her four-legged characters—elephants—a chance to survive.
The White Bone opens with five family trees. Gowdy’s pachyderms include an orphaned visionary, She-Spurns (more familiarly known as Mud), and the “fine-scenter” She-Deflates, not to mention nurse cow She-Soothes and the bull Tall Time. (Though Gowdy’s nomenclature may displease some readers, Dumbo wasn’t exactly an inspiring name either.) Then, before her tragic narrative even begins, Gowdy offers a second feat of empathy and imagination, a glossary of elephant language. Afflicted by premonitions and obsessed with memory and safety, these animals have terms that range from the formal to the low, the metaphorical to the deeply physical: the “Eternal Shoreless Water” is oblivion, a “sting” is a bullet, and a “flow-stick” a snake. Of course, if you have “trunk,” you possess “soulfulness; depth of spirit”—something every participant in Gowdy’s fourth novel desperately needs. Initially, her characters’ impressions of familiar objects are amusing, but bright comedy precedes dark tragedy. Witness Mud’s take on jeeps: “On their own, vehicles prefer to sleep, but whenever a human burrows inside them they race and roar and discharge a foul odour.” Needless to say, such speeding tends to precede a killing fest.
Alas, this is a book heavy with omens and slaughter, and Gowdy makes each elephant so individual, so conscious, that their separate fates are impossible to bear. When Tall Time, for instance, hears a helicopter, nothing, not even Gowdy’s poetry, can save him: “The shots that pelt his hide feel as light as rain. It is bewildering to be brought down under their little weight.” As the devastation increases, and her characters fail, and fail again, to find the magical white bone that should lead them to safety, the novel becomes a litany of pain and death. The only success is Barbara Gowdy’s, in getting so thoroughly under the skin of her elephantine protagonists. —Kerry Fried