Barbara Gowdy,
The White Bone
(HarperCollins Canada, 1998;

Metropolitan/Henry Holt & Co., 1999)

Barbara Gowdy creates an intense and complex culture for African elephants, replete with ritual and mythology, in The White Bone.

Mud is an adoptive member of the She-S's family, a matriarchal group of "she-ones," the universal term in her language for all elephants. All adult cows are given a name such as "She-Scares" or "She-Soothes" while bulls retain their birth name and leave the herd upon maturity. Mud is a visionary, capable of seeing events occurring either in the future or in the present but at a distance. Her best friend is Date Bed, a near-sighted cow calf who is a "mind talker." Date Bed can communicate with all other species except for snakes, insects and "hindleggers" -- the elephants' term for human beings.

Up until now, life has been pleasant relatively uncomplicated as she and her family roam the Domain (a portion of Africa), but things are changing. Drought makes food and water scarce, and ivory hunters are slaughtering the pachyderm families. The only hope for the she-ones, it would seem, is contingent upon a magical white bone which is supposed to point the way to a Safe Place. After Mud's family is attacked, she and the survivors begin the search for the bone, and for Date Bed, who has been separated from the family.

Gowdy has woven a remarkable story around these creatures. She doesn't sugarcoat her story; rather, she is uncompromising in describing the sickening brutality of the hindleggers. Her careful research is evident in her development of mythology, rituals and traditions for the she-ones, not to mention language. A glossary is provided before the narrative begins and is essential reading for better comprehension; it is there, for example, that one learns that to have "trunk" is to have deep spiritual understanding. Furthermore, she gives them a sense of story, possibly one of the greatest of all attributes.

The thoughtfully constructed belief system of the she-ones is intriguing. They believe that hindleggers evolved from a pair of elephants who fell from grace after consuming forbidden food, their hymns typically feature anywhere from 300 to 500 verses, and they have precise rituals.

The characterization is carefully developed, giving each elephant a unique personality and enabling the reader to become even more involved in the moving and poignant story.

Gowdy takes animal fantasy to a new level in The White Bone, truly a story with trunk.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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