What can I say about Jodi Picoult? Her stories have moved me in ways few others have been able to. From the stories of families lost to love found, she gets me every time. For some reason this one had slipped by me until recently. And that’s a shame, because it’s one of her best to date.
Jenna is a child without a mother, and also very much without a father. Her mom disappeared years ago after a tragic accident (or not?) at the family’s elephant sanctuary. And her dad, for all intents and purposes, is lost to her as well as he wastes away in a mental institution. Even though she has the love of her grandmother, she just can’t come to terms with the fact that her mom is not in her life. Is it because she doesn’t want to be or because she can’t? So Jenna enlists the help of a washed-up psychic along with the detective from the decade old case. With their help, can she finally figure out what happened all those years ago?
Playing a central role in the story are the elephants. Not just the physicalness of them, but of the similarities between their emotions and the emotions of humans. So very different, but so very much alike. For anyone who thinks these animals don’t feel, don’t love, don’t grieve, I dare you to make that argument after reading this book.
This book is about so many things. It’s about a child without a mother, a missing person, an unsolved mystery, and of course, the elephants. It’s a cliffhanger until the very end. And just in case you think you’ve figured it out before the last chapter, you’re wrong…
To reread or not to reread…that’s a question that I rarely ask myself. Although many people may disagree, I hardly ever find myself with the urge to reread a book, regardless of how good it was the first time around. Books just don’t usually hold my attention if I already know how it’s all going to end. This book is an exception to that self-imposed rule.
Ivan is a gorilla. Not just any gorilla, but instead a silverback, the most majestic of all gorillas. But instead of reigning over his tribe in the jungles of Africa, Ivan has spent the better part of his life behind a glass wall. For 27 years he’s been the star attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Arcade. He spends his days watching humans, who in turn watch him. He’s formed a low opinion of most humans who he has come in contact with, but he holds the other animals around him in high regard. There’s Stella, a wise and gentle soul in an elephant’s body. There’s Bob, a stray dog who has found his way into the mall and on top of Ivan’s belly for naps. And then comes Ruby, a baby elephant brought into the mall to revive lackluster ticket sales.
The story is told completely from Ivan’s point of view, complete with some of his gorilla-created vocabulary. He’s often puzzled by humans and the things they do, but until Ruby arrives he’s never really questioned his circumstances. Then the memories begin to come along, subtle at first. The taste of a mango, the colors of the jungle, the feel of his mother’s fur, the sound of his father’s voice. Suddenly Ivan’s no longer content with his dismal yet predictable life at the Big Top Mall.
So why was this one a reread for me? One simple reason-I wanted to share the innocence, joy, and sadness of Ivan’s story with my students as a read aloud. The story brings to mind questions that young children seem to innately know the answers to. What are animals thinking? Can they feel emotions such as sadness? Do they remember? And what right do we, as humans, have to dictate how and where they live? Although the book is intended and marketed toward a younger audience, it’s such a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that it will resonate with readers and listens of all ages. The chapters are short, the language is beautiful yet simple, and the well-spaced illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story. Buy it for yourself, buy it for a friend, or buy it to read to a young person in your life.