Synopses & Reviews
A thrilling journey into the minds of African elephants as they struggle to survive.
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 Gowdys The White Bone (1998), a kind of tragic epic of African elephants narrated from the perspective of the elephants, undertakes to cross the boundary between species in an extraordinarily visceral, sensuous, and poetic rendering of language unparalleled in contemporary literature. You need not believe that elephants can think in language—in this case, a highly lyric English—to be enthralled by the authors imaginative immersion in her subject, a brilliantly inspired melding of research into the lives of African elephants and the creation of a distinctly original, indeed sui generis alternative world. Inevitably, in a time in which African elephants are being ravaged by poachers and their species endangered by incursions into their natural habitat, The White Bone is not a casual reading experience. It will linger long in the memory, like an intensely unnerving yet wonderfully strange dream."
—Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books
"Inspired . . . A marvel of a book . . . The language, social structure, intellectual and spiritual world of elephants are as real as the fabric of human life. Absolutely compelling."
"Gowdy's chief accomplishment is that she manages genuinely to entrench us in the elephant psyche . . . dazzling . . . Gowdy renders this arid African landscape with a subtle gorgeousness reminiscent of Isak Dinesen."
—The Boston Globe
"Gowdy here performs her greatest creative feat yet . . . Gowdy conjures a vibrantly visceral world . . . The White Bone presents a lyrical educated guess on what elephant consciousness might feel like - including, most sadly and movingly, the perpetual threat of extinction."
"Fascinating . . . Through the course of The White Bone we come to care about the elephants as much as we would humans."
—Judy Doenges, The Seattle Times
"Written like an indigenous legend, The White Bone is about the burden of memory . . . Readers who make it through will never think the same of elephants and their ‘appalling resilience."
—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
"Gowdy [has a] great gift for sensual description...The novel is plenty funny and plenty odd."
—Sarah Boxer, The New York Times Book Review
"Compelling . . .The White Bone takes place in a self-sufficient and brilliantly authentic world . . . Impressive and delightful."
—Jelena Petrovic, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"A richly detailed novel."
—New York Daily News
"Brave . . . Gowdy has embarked on the creation of an extremely distinct, invented world, with its own social and linguistic structures, its own myths and totems."
—Claire Messud, Newsday
About the Author
is the author of five previous books, including Mister Sandman
and We So Seldom Look On Love
, and she has twice been a finalist for both the Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Reading Group Guide
1. When Date Bed is separated from her family, she discovers that the Domain has been warped by the violence of man. Because these are "abnormal times," shes not quite certain of animals behaviors anymore. Its clear that the arrival of man not only alters the elephants world, but the animal kingdom at large. In what ways are each of the characters perspectives altered, both through direct circumstance and spiritually?
2. In what ways do the elephants religion parallel and differ from the varieties of human worship?
3. Standing amidst the slaughter of his family, Hail Stones says to Mud, "Only in moments of bliss does it become apparent to us why terrible things happen." (p.117) What does the young bull mean by this statement? If Mud cannot yet understand the statement, does she by the end of the novel?
4. On p. 121: "Twice [She-Snorts] located Date Beds dung and twice she smelled single drops of her blood. At the first discovery of blood, on the node of a log, She-Snorts said, ‘She is wounded, and She-Soothes bellowed, ‘Hardly at all! and their voices, one frightened, one encouraged, described the precise, contracted boundaries of what could be reasonably felt. Not despairing, not yet. Not relieved yet, either." How do these opposite sentiments resonate throughout the novel at large? Where would you say Mud stands between such opinions?
5. At the opening of Chapter Ten (p. 159), the author describes the elephants sense of time. What role does memory play in such measurements, and what do the elephants perceptions say about how they view themselves?
6. When left to her own devices, how does Date Bed improvise her own measurements of time? And reflectively, how does her memory change?
7. Toward the end of Muds pregnancy, she experiences a dream of Date Bed telling her, "You must understand, we arent what we think we are." Date Beds trunk then disappears, and out of the cavity a wind blows and a baby cries, "Mama!" What do you think this vision means to Mud? What are her feelings about her own child?
8. When Date Bed finds the Thing, she begins what could be described as a self-exploration. Her journey begins to increasingly turn inward. Through the exercises that she uses to recover lost memory, what does Date Bed find?
9. "By what misguided arrangement were she-ones made swollen with memory rather than sleek with appetite?" (p. 320) Discuss the relevancy of this statement, not only at the close of the book, but throughout the entire novel.
10. Through Muds eyes, who is Bolt?