The White Bone: A Novel
  • The White Bone: A Novel
  • The White Bone: A Novel

The White Bone: A Novel

4.7 14
by Barbara Gowdy

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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

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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."

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Editorial Reviews

The thoughts and ideas of elephants—a different tack to take with a novel, yet this is the basic premise of this story. The protagonist, Mud, is a cow (female) elephant. She is part of an adopted family because her mother died at her birth. We meet Mud and the other elephants as they head into some terrible times. They must face a drought as well as vicious hindleggers (humans). Many of Mud's family are mercilessly slaughtered for their tusks; other elephant families are similarly decimated. Mud and other survivors try to find each other, and to locate water and food. They are also on a quest for the "safe place." The latter is some mysterious locale where they can live in peace without fear from predators. A white bone tossed in the air will show them the way to this place. As the elephants wander alone and in groups, the author offers insights into their thoughts, feelings and abilities. She did quite a bit of research and does provide views of how elephants live. It is a bit disjointed and often hard to keep track of the various elephants since they all seem to have two names. Detailed family trees are given, along with a glossary and a map of the area. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, St. Martin's/Picador, 329p, 21cm, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Robin S. Holab-Abelman; Libn., US Court, Mobile, AL, September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
Library Journal
The mysticism and majesty of the African elephant loses no honor in Gowdy's new novel. As Gowdy (Mister Sandman, LJ 4/1/97) tells of Mud, Tall-Time, and She-Swaggers and the trials their herd faces in their sub-Saharan home, she portrays an elephant culture replete with visionary matriarchs, where the elephants live with a deep, protective love for one another and a healthy respect for the life around them. The grasslands, swamps, and deserts have long been a safe home for the elephants, but years of drought and the deadly ivory trade have taken a devastating toll--nine out of ten of the elephants are slaughtered for their tusks. The survivors disperse, struggling to make it from one water hole to the next and grasping at the prophetic hope of the "sacred white bone," which is supposed to direct them to safety. This masterfully crafted novel is highly recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99; for another elephant novel, see Kim Echlin's Elephant Winter, reviewed p. 125.--Ed.]--Carolyn Ellis Gonzalez, Univ. of Texas at San Antonio Libs. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From the enormously gifted Gowdy (Mister Sandman, 1997, etc.), a mesmerizing journey into the heart of Africa and a maternal society of elephants slipping rapidly into extinction. Africa's elephants are being decimated by an unending drought and slaughtered in unprecedented numbers for their tusks and feet. Young Mud, adopted into the She-S matriarchal group after they found her nearly crushed beneath her dead mother (and named for the life-saving circumstances of her birth), is now just old enough to carry her first calf. But this ordinarily joyous occasion in an elephant's life is destined to be otherwise when the She-S band, taking refuge in a swamp, is surprised by poachers and within a few moments nearly obliterated. The few survivors scatter in fear, then attempt to find each other while also seeking the White Bone, a mystical object that, according to elephant legend, will lead the finder to the Safe Place where drought and hunters cannot enter. Separated from her lifelong friend, Date Bed, who's able to communicate telepathically with all creatures except humans, Mud searches for her with a few others, including Date Bed's mother. Meanwhile, Tall Time, father of Mud's calf, is on a lonely quest of his own for the White Bone—a quest that takes him to the land of the Lost Ones, distantly related elephants who have evolved into smaller, mountain-dwelling visionaries. Though the White Bone is eventually found, death continues to claim those seeking it, and in the end nearly everything depends on the ability of Mud and her newborn calf merely to survive. Warmly conveying a remarkably full vision of elephant life, as well as the almost incomprehensible tragedy of speciesannihilation, Gowdy has created an astonishingly moving saga. (First printing of 50,000; Book-of-the-Month-Club selection; author tour) .

Alice Munro
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.
The Boston Globe
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.
Entertainment Weekly
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.
The Seattle Times - Judy Doenges
Fascinating . . . Through the course of The White Bone we come to care about the elephants as much as we would humans.
USA Today - Bob Minzesheimer
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.'
The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Boxer
Gowdy [has a] great gift for sensual description...The novel is plenty funny and plenty odd.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune - Jelena Petrovic
Compelling . . .The White Bone takes place in a self-sufficient and brilliantly authentic world . . . Impressive and delightful.
New York Daily News
A richly detailed novel.
Newsday - Claire Messud
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.
The New York Review of Books - Joyce Carol Oates
Barbara Gowdy's 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 author's 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.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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