Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone is Margaret Atwood’s choice for our new Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books will look at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers. This week, Elizabeth Renzetti looks at matriarchy and motherhood. Tell us in the comments how themes of motherhood resonate for you in The White Bone.
In the new documentary series Our Planet, a matriarch elephant leads her family through the drought-parched landscape of Namibia in search of food and water. There is a watering hole buried in her memory. The narrator, David Attenborough, intones: “She learnt of its existence from her mother many years ago. Now, she’s teaching her own calf how to get there.’’
On the way, she protects that calf from hungry lions. The family trudges behind her. When the matriarch’s biological GPS finally leads them to the watering hole, it is dry. The seed pods they might eat have failed to grow that year. I could practically hear the mother elephant’s disbelief: Seriously? We walked all this way for this big pile of nothing?
I wanted to give that poor elephant one of those joke cards you buy your mom on Mother’s Day: I don’t want to sleep like a baby, I just want to sleep like my husband. (In the end, a helpful bull elephant pulls down some leaves for the family to eat, even as Attenborough reminds us there are only 20 matriarchs left among these desert elephants, and with them goes the group memory.)
I have no way of knowing what that matriarch was thinking, except that I do, thanks to Barbara Gowdy’s novel The White Bone. In its pages, I hear the elephants, each as distinct and precisely coloured as the characters in any great novel: She-Sees, the herd matriarch, a regal presence who’s grown a bit dotty; She-Snorts, who is both droll and lascivious; She-Screams, a bit of a drama queen. Mud, the heroine of the story, is pregnant and ambivalent about it. The animals are tied together through tradition and family, bound by the belief that they are descended from the She, the first elephant who created them, to whom they will return one day.
The elephants bicker and defend each other, a bit like giant, leathery Golden Girls loose on the savannah. This way of living, with one wise old lady in charge and a group of sisters, nieces, mothers and daughters in tow, seems like an excellent model for living. Bull elephants are kicked out of the herd at adolescence and invited back when the females are in heat, or as Gowdy calls it, “the delirium.” At that point, it becomes a bit more Sex and the City than Golden Girls.
The serpent in this Eden is two-legged, and it is us. Gowdy’s humans, or “hind-leggers,” slaughter the elephants and their calves, chainsawing off their tusks and feet. The living elephants weep and sing dirges for their lost sisters and mothers: Tuskless cows cannot ascend to paradise and be reunited with the She.
This might be the perfect book to read for Mother’s Day. It is heartbreaking, but what mother hasn’t had her heart broken? We know all about pain. It is also about the transcendent feeling of loving something more than you love yourself, of being willing to trudge for miles through a drought-wrecked landscape to ensure your offspring’s well-being (or baking a hundred cupcakes for the school fair, or waiting in an endless phone queue for swimming lessons. Insert your particular self-sacrifice here).
At the centre of the novel are two related quests: One is for the white bone, the magical rib of a baby elephant that will lead the herd to the Safe Place. The other is the herd’s search for Date Bed, a calf who’s been separated from them during a massacre. When they have to choose between finding the talisman or the child, the choice is clear. Date Bed’s mother will never stop looking for her. The lines that join daughter and mother and grandmother don’t just carry love and companionship, but also wisdom and knowledge, the means of the herd’s survival.
This river of knowledge is real, and it’s crucial. While Gowdy imagined the elephants’ distinct personalities, their cosmology and their somewhat salty names for other animals (wildebeest are “lunatics”), she did not invent their social structures. Herds do rely on the wisdom and judgment of their matriarchs, who not only remember long-distant sources of food and water, but also are keen judges of danger, and can tell the difference in the roars of hunting lions and lionesses, for example. As Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants once put it, “Elephant females are born to leadership.”
We’ve learned a lot about elephants in the past 40 years, apart from how to stop their slaughter: The first African elephant census in 1979 counted 1.3 million animals, and the most recent, in 2016, just more than 350,000. Ivory’s more valuable than wisdom, than matriarchy, than peaceful coexistence. When a story recently circulated about a rhino poacher being trampled to death by elephants, people cheered – and who could blame them? It’s not often the Goliath gets to be David.
Could elephants actually possess a sense of irony? The ones in The White Bone certainly do. In real life, we know that female elephants are capable of so many things – they mourn their dead, communicate with missing family, adopt motherless babies. The one thing they can’t manage is to keep humans, who profess to love them, from killing them. Wisdom didn’t get evenly dispersed among the animals, in the end. And as mothers always feared, no one is actually listening to them.