This review was originally published in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, Sept. 5, 1998. For all the latest on the Globe Book Club, hosted by Margaret Atwood, sign up for the Books newsletter and visit tgam.ca/bookclub.
- Title: The White Bone
- Author: Barbara Gowdy
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: HarperFlamingo
- Pages: 330 pages
An elephant never forgets. We all know the aphorism – but what would it be like to be a creature who remembers everything? “Every odour they have ever sucked into their trunks, every flicker of sunlight they have ever doused with their tremendous shadows is preserved inside them as a perfect and instantly retrievable moment.” What would it be like to live inseparable from your memories? This is one of the points of departure for Barbara Gowdy’s provocative new novel, The White Bone, narrated from the point of view of elephants and populated almost entirely by them.
On the one hand, The White Bone does indeed mark a departure for Gowdy, one of the country’s most audacious and fascinating writers, and one who has built a literary reputation on her keen, smart explorations of human oddity. Her last novel, Mr. Sandman (1995), delved into the lives of the Canary family: parents Gordon and Doris, both closeted homosexuals; daughters Marcy, the sexual profligate, and fat Sonja, the mother of strange and tiny Joan, who lives in a literal closet and becomes the catalyst for disclosing everyone’s secrets. In her short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love (1992), Gowdy wrote about – among others – a woman with an extra set of legs and two vaginas, and a young female necrophile whose passionate attachment to male corpses was successfully translated to the screen in Kissed, a film by director Lynn Stopkewich.
Freakiness for the sake of freakiness was never the point, however. Gowdy’s meticulously crafted sentences and steady, sympathetic gaze didn’t sensationalize her subjects as much as aim to humanize those who are usually ostracized by their outlandishness. In this light, The White Bone is really an extension of Gowdy’s ongoing obsessions: an attempt to inhabit difference, writ large. Very large.
The elephants in The White Bone roam a land they call The Domain, which loosely resembles the landscape of East Africa. Once-fertile grasslands now shrivel in the grip of terrible drought. Plains scorched to dust are studded with animal skeletons, dried-up watering holes, dessicated thorn trees. Human predation has intensified, too. Planes and helicopters scour the sky. Men with guns burst from vehicles. They don’t just shoot to kill, however. Worse than that, the hindleggers – as Gowdy’s elephants call humans – hack off elephant feet, carve through heads to get at tusks or saw off the tusks directly. Without her tusks, according to the novel’s elephant lore, no female elephant can ascend after death to the elephant version of paradise.
The White Bone opens with such a massacre. Occurring in the wake of another attack, it wipes out most of two elephant families. Fleeing the carnage, a wounded young female named Date Bed (so called because she was born on a bed of desert dates) becomes separated from the remains of her family. These survivors, among them Date Bed’s mother and another young female, Mud, adopted into the family just after birth and Date Bed’s companion since infancy, roam the drought-stricken terrain in search of her. In addition, the elephants are on the lookout for a mysterious white bone that, it is rumoured, will lead them to a refuge known as The Safe Place, a haven “of tranquillity and permanent green browse.” Here, “entranced hindleggers” sit in vehicles and simply stare at the elephants, as if they have suddenly recollected that they used to be elephants themselves, which – according to the elephants – they once were.
The white bone, the bleached rib bone of a newborn elephant, supposedly appears in times of darkness and remains in a family's possession for two days before vanishing. When thrown, the pointed end of the white bone will reveal the direction in which the elephants must travel to reach The Safe Place. Those who search but do not truly believe will walk in circles, however. And speaking of the white bone directly, rather than with such euphemisms as "the that-way bone," will lessen its power.
There’s a certain goofiness to such a plot summary that doesn’t do justice to what Gowdy is up to. The White Bone is a quest story, and a novel that takes its readers into an alternate world seen through the eyes of an alien intelligence. In this vein, it comes complete with map, family trees and glossary to help orient the reader. Gowdy has created her own elephant lore, hymns, cosmology. (Her elephants call themselves the “she-ones,” and believe themselves descended from an original matriarch, the “She.” Clustered in matriarchal family units, all adult females have names prefixed by “She,” each family being distinguished by names beginning with the same initial. She-Snorts, for instance, and She-Soothes.)
In the novel’s early sections, the weight of exposition feels a little creaky, and we’re initially surrounded by a host of rather similar-sounding names – a confusion which ends once most of the elephants are killed off. The White Bone is not, however, an idealized eco-parable or sentimental tale of noble beasts trying to escape human-inflicted horrors. It is seamed throughout with the sly and wacky humour characteristic of Gowdy’s work and, similarly, a sense of deep ambivalence about the possibility of certain knowledge. Like her humans, Gowdy’s elephants stumble through a funhouse world, one thick with ambiguity. They contend not only with drought and incipient threat, but the intrusions of visions and hallucinations that press up against their impeccably preserved memories.
In an interview, Gowdy has stated that her impulse was not to anthropomorphize animals – to use them as walking, talking stand-ins for people, as authors have done from Apuleius’s second-century work, The Golden Ass, to Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the most compelling achievements of The White Bone is the sheer physicality of the elephants: Gowdy takes us beneath their skin with visceral skill. Vividly big, credibly nonhuman, these are creatures who process the world through scent as much as sight. They track each other’s dung, vent emotion through scent, pick up its olfactory traces in others. Inevitably, the elephants do offer us a mirror of ourselves: not a straightforward reflection but the chance to imagine ourselves as elephants rather than elephants as us. This is the challenge to which Gowdy provokes us. Getting the elephants right isn’t the point. Comic, apocalyptic, faintly hopeful, The White Bone succeeds as a brave and captivating act of imagination.
Catherine Bush is the author of the novel Minus Time and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.