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The White Bone

by Barbara Gowdy

In two of her previous novels, Falling Angels and Mr. Sandman, Barbara Gowdy made hay with the post-war suburban family. She took on the wonky intricacies of that familiar planet with the parsing zeal of a renegade physicist who hums “It Ain’t Necessarily So” while cheerfully recalibrating the speed of light. An oblique and refreshing optic, humour, irony, compassion, a fond regard for the eccentric, an imagination that is rare in its generosity and scope, and above all a commitment to practicing a language that is both precise and musical: these have been the earmarks of her work to date, and they are plentiful in her new novel, The White Bone.

That said, this is about as significant a departure as a writer could make from her established turf. The fascination with the family continues to be a factor, but it is magnified, and in more ways than one. The players in The White Bone are elephants, and as writer/researchers like Cynthia Moss have observed, the bonds they forge out of blood and history give rise to complexities and formalities that are as tangled as our own. Gowdy has used this zoological work as a foundation on which to raise a heroic tale of questing and challenge, as well as a complex mythology: the stories that all elephants hold in their memories of creation and fall and the promise of paradise, their many-stanzaed hymns, their codes of conduct and comportment, their elaborate rituals of courtship, mourning, and celebration, their prophecies and lore, their humour, and their gifts. Some are expert trackers. Some can read minds. Some are healers.

Mud, a young cow elephant, is a visionary. She was orphaned at birth. Abandoned by her extended family, and hobbled by a crippled leg, she is adopted and raised by another matriarchal group. She is the perpetual outsider, the seeker at the heart of the story. During a season of drought and slaughter, while she is pregnant with her first calf, Mud and her rag-tag family – those few cows and calves that have not fallen to the predations of rapacious ivory and trophy hunters – undertake an epic desert journey to seek out the scattered remnants of their tribe, and to look for the White Bone, a grail-like oracle that holds the promise of a Safe Place.

Flawed and aspiring, brave and silly, tender and tragic, Mud and the other elephants who struggle to survive against impossible odds are wonderfully drawn and complex characters. We recognize in them traits and peccadilloes that are our own, but they are mercifully innocent of anything that smacks of cutesy, Disney-like anthropomorphizing. With writing that manages to be both incisive and hallucinogenic, and that is born along by a moral vision and a deftly controlled sense of outrage, Gowdy has created a landscape, a cosmology, and a community that are wholly surprising and believable. The White Bone is a singular and remarkable novel.