Tuesday, May 05, 2015
Written by Katherine Applegate
Published by HarperCollins
Ivan is a male silver-back gorilla, living in a circus just off an Interstate for almost all his adult life. He had been born in Africa, and has a few faint memories of his childhood freedom, but has now made peace with his caged existence, with not much of a yearning to go back to the wild. His companions are Stella, an old elephant with a bad leg got in a circus ring accident (that eventually kills her) and Bob the mutt. While life has a drab routine with few visitors (a fact that has Mack, the owner worried, and in a way leads to the later events in the story) the one bright spot in Ivan's day is Julia, the 10 year old daughter of the helper, George. Julia is an artist of sorts, who loves to sketch. It had been only after she had sketched Bob, that the dog got his name - "he seems like a kind of Bob." She gets paper and crayons for Ivan, who draws what he thinks is a banana or beetle on the paper. Mack sells these 'masterpieces' signed with Ivan's thumbprint, framed, at the circus curio shop.
One day, Ruby arrives. She is a baby elephant whose entire family has been killed. She has been treated badly by her previous owners, who would keep her chained by all four legs. She is adopted by Stella, who had a mother lurking inside her weary mind and body, and Ruby soon learns the ways of this life, even though she strains at the compulsions of being a circus elephant. She befriends Ivan and Bob, who begin to love this spirited bundle, and are sad while the circus owner tries to 'break her in'.
And then, suddenly, Stella's leg turns to the worse, and she dies within a couple of days. But not before she has had Ivan promise that he will help Ruby. How can he help her, being a prisoner of his cage for years? And how is his plan linked to the drawings and subsequently paintings with the finger paints that Julia gets him? How does this old, tired gorilla become the one and only Ivan? It is a book worth reading to find out. As the quote by George Eliot at the beginning of the book says, "It is never too late to be what you might have been."
It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Ivan, a real gorilla, who was with a circus for almost 27 years of his life, never seeing another of his species, restricted to a glass cage, until 'over time, as an understanding of primate needs and behavior grew, public discomfort with Ivan's lonely state grew as well, particularly after he was featured in a National Geographic special entitled "The Urban Gorilla."' He was then moved to the Atlanta Zoo, where he lived in peace with other animals till he died at the age of 50.
I loved the format of the book, which is written from the point of view of Ivan, in the first person. There are short chapters, pithily titled, and each sentence, even if of two words, forms a separate paragraph. This layout gives us a feeling of the slow but sure working out of things that the mind of a gorilla might have - these great apes show decided intelligent and purposeful behaviour. (Do click on this link - it is amazing!) The language is lyrical and riveting, scintillating in the thoughts it conveys, peppered with profound truths, and often dreamlike.
"Beyond the (parking) lot is a freeway where cars stampede without end. A giant sign at its edge beckons them to stop and rest like gazelles at a watering hole."
"I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings. But any story will do."
"When I'm drawing a picture, I feel...quiet inside."
"It’s not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything."
"Everyone has parents. It's unavoidable."
"A good zoo," Stella said, "is a large domain. A wild cage. A safe place to be. It has room to roam and humans who don't hurt." She pauses, considering her words. "A good zoo is how humans make amends."
This book, comparable to the childhood classic Charlotte's Web in many ways, is a timeless tale of friendship and courage. It is a 2013 Newbery medal winner, and should form a part of the repertoire of any reader.