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Books Globe Book Club: Watch Margaret Atwood in conversation with Barbara Gowdy, and catch up on our coverage of The White Bone

Hello, I’m Judith Pereira, The Globe’s Books Editor. We wrapped up our Book Club on Friday, May 24, with Margaret Atwood and Barbara Gowdy at a live event exclusively for subscribers at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto. You can watch the full video of their conversation below. The host of our next Book Club, which will kick off later this fall, will be two-time Giller Prize-winner Esi Edugyan. To keep up to date on all the Book Club news, sign up for our Books newsletter.



Watch Margaret Atwood and Barbara Gowdy's wide-ranging conversation for The Globe and Mail Book Club around Gowdy's novel, The White Bone.


Ask the authors

Barbara Gowdy answered questions on what drew her to write about elephants and which novelists she admires, and Margaret Atwood delved into her reasons for choosing Gowdy’s The White Bone for the first Globe Book Club.

Week 1: The enduring appeal of animal literature

Russell Smith kicked off the conversation with a look at how writers use animals to tell very human stories. We asked readers to comment on their favourite book featuring anthropomorphic animals and why it speaks to them, and here is a selection of what they had to say.

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I’ve read Animal Farm, Watership Down and Fifteen Dogs with great delight. My mind goes back to when I first read Watership Down as a young adult and how my depth of understanding of the novel has deepened as my experience on this earth has also deepened.

— 1538915458172

My favourite book featuring animal protagonists is – of course – Watership Down, which fully deserves every accolade it has received. ... Richard Adams followed this book up with The Plague Dogs, which recounts in heartbreaking detail the travails of a group of escapees from an animal research station in the Lake District of England. It strongly condemns such research and emphasizes the suffering of its subjects, while simultaneously letting us sympathize with the fate of desperately ill humans waiting for medical advances to cure them. I loved it.

— Wendy Bonus

Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone challenges us to put aside our human superiorities and “put ourselves in another being’s shoes.” In a similar fashion, R.A.R. Clouston’s The Tempest’s Roar ... positions the thought processes of whales and dolphins as they take the reader on a voyage through the planet’s underwater ocean channels into their complex society. Thank you, Margaret Atwood, for making this choice – a choice that pushes us to understand the interweaving lives of all living beings and the ramifications of our decisions on the planet and its occupants.

— W. Knight
The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy delves into the minds and lives of elephants in Africa. Margaret Atwood suggests what else to read alongside the book club title.

Week 2: Why book clubs are for spending time with friends, not authors

Russell Smith looked at the benefits and drawbacks of book clubs for readers, authors and publishers, and why the author is the last person you should ask to explain a work. Readers shared their experiences – and Barbara Gowdy explained why it’s good for authors to attend book clubs.

Over the years I’ve had many wonderful, stimulating evenings as a book club’s featured writer. Being compelled to answer for your aesthetic and narrative decisions provides you, the writer, with the opportunity to dig more deeply into your creative self. What drives you? Why kill off that character? Why all the sex scenes? And so on. These are legitimate questions; even if the author is the last person capable of answering them to anyone’s satisfaction, she serves herself, her readers and her book, if she tries to come up with honest answers.

— Barbara Gowdy

I had such a chuckle reading Russell Smith’s piece, particularly the part where he mentions feeling sorry for the book club members who were forced to read a book they may not have wanted to read. My very reason for never having joined a book club! (Until this one.) Whenever I’ve been invited to do so, I asked to see their reading list, and was invariably perplexed by it: Where do they get these titles from? ... On the other hand, I fully recognize that many other reasons to join book clubs exist. The end result is beneficial for all: the member who is encouraged to read books, and society whose collective mind is improved.

— Suzanne A Gauthier

I definitely don’t think it’s necessary for an author to explain their work. In a way it really doesn’t matter what the author intended with a novel, it stands or fails in how it is received by readers. Book clubs are great ways to maintain or grow friendships, an opportunity to read something you normally wouldn’t read (but might find you like). I’ve only been involved in one, but it was lots of fun - though I rarely enjoyed the books others chose, and they rarely enjoyed mine. But we were good friends nonetheless.

— Gizella

I co-host a book club in a Federal Maximum Security prison in Ontario. Once a year we invite a writer to come and join our book club. If you choose well, that is consider the membership of the book club, it can be a very fruitful experience. Lawrence Hill has come to discuss The Book of Negroes. More recently, Steve Heighton came to answer questions about his novel The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep. Both men were brilliant in discussing their novels, other writers, the art and practice of writing and even related topics like sports with the men. That is, they understood their audience and spoke accordingly. If the match is right, and the book is one the men might like, the meeting of writer with readers can be magical. It has been so with us.

— EricDFriesen
Celebrated author Margaret Atwood talks about the attraction of book clubs, and recalls her own experience with them when she read a pulp sci-fi book in the 1950s. Video shot at the Kimpton Saint George Hotel, Toronto.

Week 3: The wisdom of (elephant) mothers

Elizabeth Renzetti looked at matriarchy among the elephants in The White Bone, “each as distinct and precisely coloured as the characters in any great novel" and readers weighed in.

What I liked most about Elizabeth Renzetti’s article was the emphasis on the leadership, knowledge and resourcefulness of the female elephants despite their varying personalities. She suggests possible comparisons with female humans. Ms Renzetti’s article suggests that female humans, in the form of “mothers”, also have these abilities but like the elephants, they are not listened to. In The White Bone the elephants are trying to escape a foe that cannot be beaten but it is not female hind-leggers. It is male hunters/poachers who want the elephant tusks and rhino horns for money and power. I realize that this story about the destruction of an elephant matriarchy is symbolic of the matriarchal persecution in our past human history, and which continues to this very day. My one bone of contention with Renzetti is that not all of us are mothers. Does this suggest that childless female hind-leggers do not have the same wisdom, knowledge and ability to lead?

— Muezza

No, I don’t think Elizabeth Renzetti is suggesting that childless females are lacking, somehow. She is indeed drawing a lot of parallels between elephant and human mothers, but I think she is mostly praising the elephant matriarchal society for being wise. After reading this piece, I (who am also childless) was left with one thought: Guardians of life, females are the guardians of life. They engender it and grow it within their bodies, then nurture its development into full realization. Subsequently, they continue to guard it fiercely, in all of its forms. What interesting timing to have selected this book for a period that encompasses Mother’s Day! But I doubt very much this was Margaret Atwood’s intention. I think that this coincidence speaks to the universality of the theme of “Females as the guardians of life”; it’s honoured on one day of the year, it’s integral to the nature conservation movement (which, I believe, had been more Margaret Atwood’s interest in selecting The White Bone), and it’s ubiquitous in literature.

— Suzanne A Gauthier
More than twenty years after it was first published, Barbara Gowdy reflects on any changes she'd make to The White Bone today.

Week 4: The plight of the elephants, from The White Bone to today

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Biologist and author Britt Wray looked at the threats to elephant populations, from poaching to climate change, and readers offered their suggestions.

Canada and other countries should consider tying foreign aid to effective bans on buying and selling elephant ivory and other parts, as well as parts of other endangered species such as Rhinos. ...

As interesting as the Siberian mammoth project is, I imagine there might be a lot of issues to consider including whether turning large amounts of tundra into grazing land would be a good idea given that it sequesters carbon. We would be better off focusing on stabilizing the world’s population so we leave some space for the non-human beings to live where they have always lived.

— res ipsa loquitor

I’d like to see The White Bone included as recommended reading in high school curriculums (English, Geography, Environmental Studies) across the provinces. The effect of this also extends to the International Schools across the globe. I was the teacher-librarian at Renaissance International Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and know that teachers of these subjects drew upon the curriculum from English-speaking countries to plan their programs. Then students then drew upon their coursework to plan their Service Projects - and thereby influence family, friends and others in countries where people are still creating a demand for elephant parts.

— 1538915458172
Barbara Gowdy goes into detail about the part of The White Bone that was the most challenging to write.

And the first Globe Book Club title is …

Harper Collins

Margaret Atwood has chosen Barbara Gowdy’s 1998 novel The White Bone for The Globe and Mail’s new Book Club. The novel was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Catherine Bush reviewed the book for The Globe and described it as “a quest story” that “takes its readers into an alternate world seen through the eyes of an alien intelligence.” That alien intelligence is a group of elephants, whose families have been torn apart by poachers. Those who remain embark on a search for the mythical white bone – the bleached rib bone of a newborn elephant – to lead them to a safe place.

The title selected by Margaret Atwood for The Globe's Book Club is The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy. Atwood explains her reasons behind picking the novel, in particular its conservation message.

More on Barbara Gowdy

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The Globe profiled Barbara Gowdy in 2003, before the publication of her novel The Romantic, and again in 2017, before her novel Little Sister arrived in bookstores, “marking the return, after the longest break of her career, of one of the most inventive and important writers Canada has ever produced.”


The journey from novel to documentary

Barbara Gowdy spent three years researching elephants before writing The White Bone, but aside from a brief tourist safari that wouldn’t let her get close to the animals, she wrote her story based on scientific texts and field guides. In the documentary Elephant Dreams, cameras capture Gowdy’s own private safari in the Kenyan conservation parks Samburu and Amboseli, the latter a location Gowdy used in her novel. But, spoiler alert, the film isn’t meant as a companion piece to The White Bone – the documentary gives away the book’s ending.

FAQ

Why is The Globe and Mail launching a Book Club?

In feast or in famine, books are an integral part of our everyday lives. So when one of Canada’s most venerable authors, Margaret Atwood, proposed working with The Globe to launch a book club, we saw a great opportunity to create our own live community of readers.

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How will the Book Club work? Is it in person or online?

The Globe and Mail Book Club brings subscribers together online to read and talk about a great Canadian book. The first edition of our book club was hosted by Margaret Atwood, culminating in a live event featuring the two authors in conversation on May 24.

How do I participate in the book club?

Every week we published new discussion topics, videos and essays related to the book online and in print, and encouraged subscribers to discuss the book online in the comments section. Subscribers also had the opportunity to send questions to Margaret Atwood and the author.

Home-delivery subscribers who have not yet activated their unlimited access to globeandmail.com can do so here.

For the latest on the Book Club, sign up for our Books newsletter.

What if I can’t go to the live event?

A video of the conversation is available for subscribers.

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Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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