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The White Bone [Paperback]

Barbara Gowdy
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 19 2002
Barbara Gowdy brings her staggering imagination to an utterly new realm in The White Bone, a classic quest story of elephants, memory and the will to survive.

Despite the proliferation of recent non-fiction bestsellers that have opened our eyes to a new understanding of animals, no book has taken these ideas to their natural conclusion, which is that animals who possess emotions and awareness must also have stories. If elephants could tell us just one story, it would be the story of Mud, which is the story at the heart of The White Bone.

Mud is a young elephant cow, orphaned at birth and blessed with visionary powers. For many years, she and her adoptive family roam the plains of Africa until prolonged drought forces them to stay close to one of the few remaining watering holes. It is there that ivory poachers find them and kill, or drive off, almost all the elephant cows and their young. Mud, now an adolescent and pregnant with her first calf, sets out with the wounded and traumatized survivors in search of the injured. Guided by visions, memories and hallucinations as much as their incredible sense of smell, the ruined herd hears rumors of A Safe Place and the White Bone that can lead them there. The quest becomes one of endurance, sacrifice, and, ultimately, transcendence, as the elephants struggle for their own lives and the continuation of their kind.

Barbara Gowdy's work has been celebrated as "dazzling and wholly original." With The White Bone, Gowdy both explores the territory of the family, and takes her talent for "audacious concept, inspired characterization, and poignant message" (Publishers Weekly) to remarkable new heights. Her genius lies in the combination of a universal theme with the creation of characters entirely true to their animal natures.

Destined for bestseller status, The White Bone will be one of the most talked-about titles of the season.

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From Amazon

Barbara Gowdy has an utter affinity for the unconventional. In the title story of We So Seldom Look on Love, necrophilia is exquisite rather than execrable, and her wildly funny--and wildly affecting--novel Mister Sandman invites us into the hearts and minds of Toronto's least normal and most loving family. With The White Bone Gowdy continues her exploration of extraordinary lives, but this time human beings ("hindleggers") are on the periphery. And we're grateful when they're not around, since this gives her four-legged characters--elephants--a chance to survive.

The White Bone opens with five family trees. Gowdy's pachyderms include an orphaned visionary, She-Spurns (more familiarly known as Mud), and the "fine-scenter" She-Deflates, not to mention nurse cow She-Soothes and the bull Tall Time. (Though Gowdy's nomenclature may displease some readers, Dumbo wasn't exactly an inspiring name either.) Then, before her tragic narrative even begins, Gowdy offers a second feat of empathy and imagination, a glossary of elephant language. Afflicted by premonitions and obsessed with memory and safety, these animals have terms that range from the formal to the low, the metaphorical to the deeply physical: the "Eternal Shoreless Water" is oblivion, a "sting" is a bullet, and a "flow-stick" a snake. Of course, if you have "trunk," you possess "soulfulness; depth of spirit"--something every participant in Gowdy's fourth novel desperately needs. Initially, her characters' impressions of familiar objects are amusing, but bright comedy precedes dark tragedy. Witness Mud's take on jeeps: "On their own, vehicles prefer to sleep, but whenever a human burrows inside them they race and roar and discharge a foul odour." Needless to say, such speeding tends to precede a killing fest.

Alas, this is a book heavy with omens and slaughter, and Gowdy makes each elephant so individual, so conscious, that their separate fates are impossible to bear. When Tall Time, for instance, hears a helicopter, nothing, not even Gowdy's poetry, can save him: "The shots that pelt his hide feel as light as rain. It is bewildering to be brought down under their little weight." As the devastation increases, and her characters fail, and fail again, to find the magical white bone that should lead them to safety, the novel becomes a litany of pain and death. The only success is Barbara Gowdy's, in getting so thoroughly under the skin of her elephantine protagonists. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Gowdy, the prodigiously talented Canadian author who caused a stir with Mister Sandman and We So Seldom Look on Love, writes with such immediacy and vigor that she can take a reader almost anywhere. In this novel, however, she has chosen to inhabit the minds of a series of elephants in African desert country, and despite her great skill and the colossal effort of imaginative empathy it must have entailed, her book is hard going. For a start, as in one of those vast generational sagas, there are endless family trees to sort out, and since the elephant families are whimsically named, always after the matriarchal leaders (the She-S's, the She-B's-And-B's, etc.), the relationships are difficult to come to grips with. The book is a series of quests, carried out against the fierce odds of a frightful drought and the occasional murderous intervention of ivory-seeking "hind-leggers." Little Mud, who has visions, is crippled and seeking her family; Date Bed, a "mind talker" shot in an ambush and given up for dead, is being sought by her family; all are seeking the Safe Place, a sort of elephant heaven that is located by throwing the iconic White Bone so that it points in the right direction. There is a great deal of interesting elephant lore, about the nature of their fabulous memory, their scenting and tracking skills, their eating, drinking and fornicating habits. Without being overly anthropomorphic, Gowdy manages to individualize a number of them as having human-scale emotions, even humor; and they have religious songs (lauding the She) that sound wonderfully like Victorian hymns. But despite her skillsAperhaps even because of themAthe reader is disappointed that so talented a writer could have exerted so much effort on so unpromising a subject. 50,000 first printing; BOMC selection; author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MOVING, SAD -- AND BEAUTIFUL Oct. 24 2002
The key, I think, to understanding and enjoying this wonderful novel lies in the quote from author Joy Williams that appears on the back cover: 'This sorrowful novel does holy work because it engages us in that holiest of acts - empathy'. Rarely have I come across a creation as beautiful as this book - or as sad. The reviewers below who take issue with the 'lack of plot' and the mourning that seems to occur on every other page should stop for just a moment and think about the world in which elephants live - a world that has seemingly focused itself on their destruction as a species, all for the prize of their ivory tusks. There are laws in place today to make an attempt to stem this slaughter - but poaching remains a constant threat, and more aggressive steps are obviously needed to save these gentle creatures.
The world that Barbara Gowdy has imagined in this book is not one that leaps merely from her imagination - a look at her acknowledgements at the end of the novel will reveal this. She has definitely done her homework, and her work here has its roots in science and reality - which makes the scope of her creation all the more amazing. She has brought to life not just the surface of the elephants' lives - she has envisioned and made very real the structures of their society, their thought processes, the various methods with which they communicate (both with each other and with members of other species), and even a vast system of mythology, embodying legends, 'links' (omens, signs and folk wisdom), a vast knowledge of their natural world, and even the concept of a creative deity. This might sound like quite a feat for the author to pull off - and it is, but she does so with breathtaking success.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound Jan. 1 2005
A profound and inventive book. Gowdy's choice of speaking to the human condition through the medium of an extended family of elephants is unusual, to say the least, but ultimately rewarding. A challanging but deeply satisfying read. In my opinion, this is Gowdy at her best.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a gift June 7 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A friend recommended this book -- it was a gift for a family member . Good reading for those who care about other living soula .
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of best books I've read May 13 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book was very interesting and a tear jerker. I totally fell in love with some of the characters and shed some tears. Makes you sympathize with the animals.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The White Bone. by Barbara Gowdy July 25 2011
By Fran
A story about families of elephants searching for the "White Bone", a sacred object which has led the elephants for hundreds of years. Families must fight for their lives against the "killing things" who want their tusks and feet and leave the rest to rot. Some members of different clans who have escaped the slaughters are now wandering, searching for other survivors.

This is a wonderful book. Full of joy and sorrow. I smiled and cried, and cried some more. Barbra Gowdy has been criticized for writing this book, saying she was trying to make this into non-fiction. There are some truths in the book otherwise it would just be another non-fiction appealing to a different group of readers But it is a well balanced, truly fascinating, hard to put down book. I give it 10/10
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Unsettling Sept. 26 2002
Barbara Gowdy never ceases to amaze me. Having read her previous books, I did not believe that she could spin such another different tale. Her agility in presenting such an immense topic astounds me.
From the opening pages the reader becomes engrossed in an entire world of elephants that Gowdy spins with incredible dexterity. The elephants are graceful, powerful, but still susceptible to loss and defeat. The descriptions of the animals leave the reader breathless as they embark on the journey for a myth that becomes reality. An epic story that stirs the heart. The fact that Gowdy is capable of creating new words and phrases brings the reader further into the world of the magnificent creatures. It is virtually impossible to not become amazed by the perceptions that Gowdy presents through the characters. The break-down of the different groups is reflective of the societal break down of the human world.
An intense work that is a dazzling commentary on the roles of individuals in a society, shown through a unique perspective.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love those elephants Nov. 25 2001
This is an unusual story, and it requires you to open your mind to a different way of thinking about things (thus some of the complaints from some readers about it being "slow, etc.".... but if you love elephants and you can accept a different way of listening to (reading) a story, you will enjoy The White Bone and the elephant's persepective.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unusual Book Well Worth Reading April 15 2000
This novel is difficult to describe. For lack of a better or more precise genre term I'll label as sci-fi.
What it really is, is an elegant excursion into a world where the speaking characters are elephants. the entire story is told from inside the minds of, or from the viewpoints of, the elephants involved.
A few families go in search of "The Safe Place" where elephants can live unmolested and have a plentiful food supply. As they conduct their search they are revealed as individuals with quirks and prejudices you will recognize as common among humans. They have a set of religious beliefs which guide them.
The setting is Africa in the midst of the worst drought in sixty-five years. There are numerous adventures and mishaps; successes and failures; births and deaths.
This is a unique and startling piece of work well worth reading if you're inclined to such material.
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