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In The White Bone, a herd of African elephants face challenges so immense as to dwarf even their hefty bulk. Drought has ravaged the once-rich grasslands and humans hunt them for their ivory tusks with brutal regularity. Young Mud is a female elephant adopted by one herd after her own was wiped out by hunters. Mud has a kind adoptive mother in She-Scares, a best friend in fellow youngster Date Bed, and even something of a love interest in a young bull named Tall Time. In fact, Mud is expecting her first calf. But this potentially joyous occasion is significantly marred when her family is slaughtered by poachers. Mud survives and sets out to find the mythical White Bone, a legendary artifact that will lead the finder to the Safe Place. Her quest is not an easy one for elephant or reader; author Barbara Gowdy doesn’t hold back when describing the violence, tragedy, and despair that accompanies the near-extinction of an entire species. The White Bone is a difficult read in other ways as well; the kinship and names of the members of various herds get complicated at times. Each female of the herd is named She-something, the “something” beginning with the same letter as the matriarch elephant’s name (She-Swaggers, She-Demands); the cow elephants get these names when they reach maturity and before that are known by other names; male bull elephants keep their childhood names; and it takes awhile before the reader is fully immersed in the elephants’ vocabulary (a “big fly” is an ostrich, “hindleggers” are humans) and sense of place in the sub-Sahara deserts. Gowdy’s intention with her detailed family trees and glossaries is to instill her animals with the same intricate histories, families, and memories that people are both blessed and cursed with. Elephants never forget, and Gowdy has gifted her cast of gray-eared giants with so much empathy and emotion that her human readers surely won’t forget, either.
posted Jan 15, 2010 at 1:51PM
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