Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, The White Bone, opens at a fateful moment, when a family fails to recognize “glaring omens” of impending catastrophe because it is preoccupied in arguing over the proper name for an adopted daughter. The daughter’s childhood nickname is Mud, and she is an elephant.
A Canadian writer whose strange and eccentric work has been compared to that of Diane Arbus and Kazuo Ishiguro, Gowdy conjures up the physical, mental, and moral lives of Loxodonta africana africana, the largest land mammal, the African elephant, with gritty specificity, relying on the raw data of leading elephant behavior specialists as well as on her experience of Africa. She does not hesitate to envision the personalities, dreams, memories, language, slang, songs, hymns, yearnings, fears, frustrations, sorrows, and sexuality of these animals, fully imagining, as she told an interviewer, “what it would be like to be that big and gentle, to be that imperiled, and to have that prodigious memory.” Inhabiting such an animal—so fully that the entire novel is told from the perspective of elephants—may seem a surprising authorial choice, but, given the unexpectedness of Gowdy’s previous work, it shouldn’t.
In her fiction, Gowdy has been drawn to the grotesque. The eight stories in We So Seldom Look on Love (1992) focus lovingly on deformities of all kinds: a fat retarded child who performs a self-lobotomy by drilling a hole through her head (“Body and Soul”); a child with two tiny legs growing out of her stomach who grows up to realize how crucial her difference is just as they are being amputated (“Sylvie”); a woman who masturbates in front of a silent neighbor (“Ninety-three Million Miles Away”); a man whose two heads, one sacred, one profane, drive each other to murder (“The Two-Headed Man”); and, in the title story, the fatal infatuation of a medical student with a female necrophiliac. Her previous novel, Mister Sandman (1996), followed the adventures of the Canarys, a family in which the mother is a pathological liar and a lesbian and the father is a closeted homosexual; their extraordinary grandchild, whom they have passed off as their own, is a mute savant with preternatural hearing and mimicking abilities.
But Gowdy hasn’t been raiding the freak show for mere effect; her odd and exaggerated characters provide an almost metaphysical map of the nature of human identity, isolating and highlighting the kinds of mental and emotional handicaps that characterize childhood, adolescence, the ill, the aged, sexual life, family life. Nonetheless, these early tales, while often hilarious, can occasionally be jarring, as if the writer were operating some kind of ungainly, unfamiliar machinery. But in The White Bone, Gowdy has not only worked out the kinks in the system, she has found an almost perfect affinity between a subject that, once again, verges on the grotesque and her larger concerns, boldly expanding her compass to include tribes and other species, and asking: How does it feel to be a giant? To live in a matriarchy? To be an enormous physical creature in a natural world that’s being constricted and dismantled? To gaze on humans with incomprehension and disgust? To be not human?
The White Bone is thus a unique amalgam of genres: the too-often despised animal story shot through with the grotesque. Elephants, in their gigantism, are somehow grotesque—magnificent, majestic, awesome, yes—but also grotesque, with their gargantuan heads, prehensile proboscises with fingerlike extremities, baggy scored skin, whiskery chins, their massive bulk and sheer power contrasted with the delicacy and precision of their movements. Through an extravagant evocation of the physicality of these creatures Gowdy finds an entrance to their alien world, a world that provides an implicit, and devastating, commentary on our own.
The characterizations of The White Bone, imaginative as they are, are grounded in reality, based as they are on the work done by the elephant behaviorists cited in Gowdy’s acknowledgments (Cynthia Moss, Martyn Colbeck, Joyce Poole, and Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, among them). These experts, who have spent decades observing elephants in the wild, have documented what the Romans once took for granted: that elephants are creatures of great intelligence who maintain close and complex social relationships; that they seem to communicate with each other, both within their matriarchal groups and over long distances, through rumbling sounds too low for humans to hear; that they seem to mourn their dead; that they possess a prodigious memory. In African Elephants, Daryl and Sharna Balfour describe the sensitivity of elephants to the extermination of their kind:
There can be no doubt that, when culling begins, the distress of the animals is communicated over great distances to other elephant herds, spreading fear and panic. Several years ago, at a private lodge outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, a group of visitors were watching a herd of elephants peacefully drinking and bathing at a waterhole. Suddenly, without any sign of disturbance, the elephants flew into a panic and fled the scene. Rangers later tracked the elephants to the furthest corner of the reserve, and subsequently discovered that, almost to the minute of the perceived panic, elephant culling had started in a sector of the national park almost 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. One theory was that the distress of the slaughter was transmitted either by the elephants involved in the cull over that great distance, or passed from herd to herd through the area, so that all elephants knew within minutes of the slaying of their kind!*
The elephants in the novel inhabit The Domain, their ancestral home whose landmarks, both natural (swamp, rivers, waterholes, baobab trees, acacias) and unnatural (fences, sites of elephant slaughters), are mapped in their minds. They worship the sun, which they call the She, as in “In another hour the eye of the She will close, and Her son, Rogue, will assume the watch.” Because the She is “the mother of elephants,” the older cows christen their younger sisters as they come of age with formal verb names beginning with “She,” as in “She-Measures” or “She-Soothes”; each separate elephant family adopts an initial letter of the alphabet (as in the She-M’s or the She-B’s) as its own. These names, which replace the casual nicknames given to infants at birth, also allude to some essential characteristic of the individual’s personality. (Sarah Boxer, in The New York Times Book Review, expressed impatience with these names: “Try slogging across the parched veld with a herd of verb-names and keeping them straight….” But the names, which any careful reader can keep track of, are so crucial to a sense of the elephants’ use of language, their family politics, and their wicked sense of humor that it’s impossible to imagine the novel without them.)
Mud, the central character of The White Bone, is born into the She-M family, but her mother, She-Moans-and-Moans, is bitten by a cobra during labor. Falling, she pins the legs of the infant under her corpse. After hours of trying to pull her out, the She-M’s, forced to flee by encroaching humans, reluctantly abandon the baby to its fate. But rain falls; she pulls herself free; and the next elephant family to happen by, the She-S’s, accepts her. Hence Mud, named for the fortuitous substance that saved her, becomes the adopted calf of She-Scares. But her name is Mud: her traumatic entry into the world has marked her as a perpetual outsider with a withered leg and a chip on her shoulder.
By virtue of her sensitivity, she becomes the visionary of her adopted family, seeing, as Gowdy explains in a footnote, “two kinds of visions: visions of the future (occasionally referred to as ‘later visions’) and visions of things more or less current in time but far away in space (‘away visions’).” As the novel opens, Mud has just come of age. In her first “delirium,” she has allowed herself to be mounted by the bull Tall Time (the males, who are eventually driven off to solitary lives, keep their birth names throughout their lives), and the older cows are bestowing upon her a name that they find appropriate and that she finds appalling: She-Spurns.
As the inventive system of naming suggests, these elephants are a far cry from Babar; they are often slyly sarcastic, cutting, and impatient, their earthy banter reminiscent of The Women. But the tragic contraction of their Domain and the terrifying, irrational behavior of human beings keep interrupting their comedy of manners. In the midst of the She-S’s excitement and Mud’s resentment over her naming, they are joined by the pathetic survivors—three cows and a wounded bull calf—of the She-D’s, a family that had numbered twenty-seven until it was trapped against a fence (“Rogue’s web”) to be slaughtered by humans (“hindleggers”) who appeared above them in a helicopter (“roar fly”). Although Mud and her good friend, a young cow named Date Bed—a “mind talker” who has the gift of being able to hear the thoughts not only of other elephants but also of other species—sense the dread of yet another impending slaughter, they are distracted by the visionary tale told by the She-D’s wounded bull calf, Hail Stones, who has learned from a dying bull that there is a Safe Place to which they may be guided if they can only find a sacred object known as the White Bone.
The White Bone is intimately connected to humans, who, according to elephant mythology, were once more tolerable, and tolerant, than “today’s breed”: “They ate flesh, yes, and they were unrepentent and wrathful, but they killed only to eat, and very few of them had a taste for she-ones.” After a drought of biblical proportions, however, humans assumed their modern, maniacal ways:
As water and grazing disappeared, the various species grew wary of each other, and the minds of humans, snakes, and insects became impenetrable. From the minds of snakes and insects could be heard only a faint chiming. From the minds of humans came a silence so absolute and menacing that many of those who heard it forswore mind talking altogether.
What provoked that terrible silence? It was the darkness…the darkness had entered the humans and was corrupting their already corrupt spirits. Soon they were slaughtering whole families. After devouring the flesh of their kills, they were burning the hides and pulverizing the bones and tusks. They seemed bent on annihilation, and the surviving she-ones fled to the edges of The Domain without any thought of returning to mourn their dead, since they believed that no trace of the dead remained.
A single bone of a newborn baby survives the conflagration, however, and, “bleached to a blinding whiteness,” it takes on the protective power of a grail, “radiat[ing] toward all living creatures a quality of forgiveness and hope.” Transformed by its benefi-cent power, some shadowy but well-meaning humans establish a refuge or sanctuary, “a place of tranquillity and permanent green browse” where all creatures, including elephants, can live unmolested. Although, as the cow She-Snorts comments, “it is difficult to imagine a breed of humans pierced by goodness,” the She-S’s make that leap of faith, and Mud, Date Bed, and the rest of their clan dedicate themselves to the search for the White Bone and the Safe Place.
The family, however, is soon sadly diminished. While The Domain is gripped by another long, crippling drought, despite the uneasiness felt by Mud, the matriarch and other elders tarry at Blood Swamp, a water hole where food is still available but where elephants are known to congregate and are fearfully exposed. In an obscene and horrific spectacle, humans arrive in a vehicle and open fire on the elephants, killing the matriarch, most of the older cows, twin newborns, and Mud’s adoptive mother, then mutilating the corpses with chainsaws:
Mud stops. She-Sees has been hit. On her deeply fissured torso, five holes describe a circle. Vapour puffs from the holes, there is no blood, and the ancient cow remains standing. The human strolls over and raises his gun. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure!” She-Sees trumpets, extending her trunk in the greeting gesture. When the human is close enough she wraps her trunk around the barrel. The human fires, then prances back from the red spray. Still, She-Sees does not fall. The chain-saw human shouts, and Mud looks toward the shallows. The chain-saw human holds the tiny tusk of She-Scares between his legs. He pumps his hips. More shots from downshore, and then a tremendous shuddering underfoot as She-Sees drops to the ground.
Wounded and in terror, Date Bed runs out across the plain and is separated from the motley few survivors: Mud; Hail Stones (the last of the She-D’s); She-Screams, a cow given to self-regarding histrionics; She-Screams’s bull calf Swamp; the nurse cow She-Soothes, whose left eye has been shot out; She-Soothes’s bull newborn Bent; and the largest cow and thus the new matriarch, She-Snorts. These remnants of two once-mighty families set out in search of Date Bed and the White Bone.
The narrative of the novel is a tapestry of perspectives, weaving together three desperate journeys. The pregnant Mud and her depleted family search for Date Bed while forging an uneasy alliance with a cheetah, Me-Me, who promises to lead them to the Safe Place in exchange for Mud’s unborn calf; we’re also privy to Mud’s intermittent flashback memories (through which we learn about her birth) and visions which elaborate her history and relationships with the other elephants. Interspersed with Mud’s journey is the parallel campaign of Tall Time the Link Bull, Mud’s paramour, who has impregnated her or, as the elephants say, “dug her calf tunnel.”
An enthusiastic student of elephantine omens or superstitions (“links”), Tall Time has learned of the White Bone independently and embarks on an epic pilgrimage across a desert and into a forest to seek out the We-F’s, or the Lost Ones, a smaller race of elephants long said to live in caves and rumored to know the whereabouts of the magic bone. (In fact, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, the forest elephant, is a smaller subspecies of the African elephant whose existence was only confirmed in the 1980s.) Abashedly in love with Mud (bulls taken over by the powerful mating instincts of musth are generally promiscuous), Tall Time yearns to lead her to the Safe Place, not realizing that Date Bed harbors fond feelings for him.
Ironically, it is Date Bed’s more aimless journey, as she wanders alone, hallucinating from pain, thirst, and starvation, that yields salvation for her family; she stumbles across a magical reflective object which she recognizes as part of a human vehicle (it seems to be a rear-view mirror). She calls it “the Thing” and uses it to barter with birds (who believe their reflections in it are their “spirit twins”) for aerial searches for the other elephants.
But as in life, few of these journeys end peacefully. Tall Time, after his perilous trek, is snubbed by the forest elephants and cut down by a helicopter: “The shots that pelt his hide feel as light as rain. It is bewildering to be brought down under their little weight.” Date Bed is bitten by a snake, but in her death throes she believes the Thing to be the White Bone; she tosses it and discerns the direction of the Safe Place. She tells the mongooses who have befriended her to relay the news to Mud, who finally finds her friend’s corpse just as she is about to give birth to her own calf, greedily awaited by the cheetah. In a final confrontation, the matriarch She-Snorts kills Me-Me, and Mud, her newborn calf, Bolt, and the few survivors set off to safety, headed in the right direction but surrounded, as always, by uncertainty.
As an animal story, The White Bone is remarkable for what it is not: neither allegory, nor satire, nor children’s fable. Few animal novels achieve such depth of characterization while remaining largely true to biological reality. Watership Down stripped rabbits of the quaint clothing and British mannerisms of Beatrix Potter, restoring much of their behavioral complexity, but that novel remains a picaresque and anthropomorphic tale that concerns rabbit life, not human life. Other recent fictions about the alien world of insects—Donald Harington’s The Cockroaches of Stay More and Ber-nard Werber’s Empire of the Ants—are similarly fanciful, often comedic graftings of human characteristics onto animals whose perceptions of the world are, as yet, a mystery. Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, told from the point of view of a homeless man’s dog, is more a social commentary than an investigation into the lives of dogs.
Throughout the novel and in her glossary, Gowdy has used anecdotes and observations, similar to the one by the Balfours Iquoted earlier, to devise her elephants’ extraordinarily rich lexicon of words and emotions, which range from the lyrical to the bawdy. Fleshing out the interior lives of these almost unimaginable animals, she spares us no detail of their physical experience. But the fluids, excretions, and odors in which the elephants’ lives and deaths are suffused only dramatize their vulnerability, and gradually they become less “animal” or alien and more familiar and endearing. Every individual elephant has its own idiosyncrasies: She-Soothes, the nurse cow whose nutty health theories bear some resemblance to those of our own “alternative healers,” nags the other starving cows, to their disgust, to drink their urine and eat their own feces, “‘drought fruit’ she calls it.”
The more grotesque the elephants are, the more recognizable and familiar, and gradually, the roles of the two warring species are reversed. In the novel’s world, it is the elephants who possess what we like to think of as “humanity,” and it is the humans, appearing only abruptly and randomly, who become truly grotesque: freakish, furtive, asocial, berserk, hateful, evil. In Gowdy’s universe, the grotesque becomes a means by which to embody universal and irrational human needs, identical in their urgency to animal needs, the gratification of which invariably, for good or ill, violates moral codes.
Despite a number of laudatory reviews, The White Bone’s refusal to countenance the human perspective has inspired some mockery. But our discomfort with such feats of imagination only underscores a crucial theme of the novel: the magnitude of our intolerance of other beings. The White Bone poses the question of whether humanity is capable of allowing other species to survive. It dares to imagine the enormity of what we don’t know about ourselves and others, and, “small and profane” as we are, the consequences of our ignorance.
September 23, 1999