The White Bone – Barbara Gowdy

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Barbara Gowdy is a Canadian author who is treasured in her native country, but I hadn’t heard of her until I came across some Canadian bloggers. Writer’s Pet was the person who finally persuaded me to read one of her books and I’m really pleased I did – she is so original!

The White Bone is narrated by elephants. The book follows a herd of elephants as they wander across the East African plains. We see their every day lives and then the tragedy of an attack by poachers.

The book is very well researched and I loved learning all the little facts about elephants. I occasionally found that the footnotes ruined the flow of the story for me, but the added knowledge they gave me almost made up for this.

My main problem with the book was the names of the elephants. Each herd was named using a different letter of the alphabet, with the group being referred to as the She-S’s or the She-D’s. It is silly really, but for some reason the names really irritated me.

She-Screams begins to weep out loud, and then all the She-S’s, even She-Snorts, even Swamp, are weeping out loud, urinating and defecating, streaming temporin. The She-D’s step aside from the commotion and are silent until She-Scares recovers herself enough to ask, “How is it that you were spared?”
“We ran,” She-Demands says simply.
“We ran and ran,” She-Distracts sing-songs.

It makes sense for herds to be named in this way, so perhaps I am just too used to reading about humans!

By the end of the book I felt as though I knew what it was like to be an elephant – Barbara Gowdy had managed to explain their way of life in beautiful detail.

The books brings home the shocking way in which elephants are killed for their tusks and the gentle nature of these giant animals.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different in their fiction, especially if you have an interest in elephants.

Have you read anything written by Barbara Gowdy?

Which of her books do you recommend I try next?

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  1. I added this to my wish-list a couple of months ago; I can’t remember how I came across it but it seems fortuitous that I’ve seen a couple of mentions -and now this post- since. It is a book that appeals to me and it one I’d potentially give to my uncle to read, as he loves elephants.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It is strange how an author that you’ve never heard of can suddenly pop up all over the place. I hope you enjoy your first Gowdy and I’m sure your uncle would love this one if he is especially interested in elephants.

  2. Sandy says:

    I do love elephants…all animals actually. But I’m not sure about the names. Seems kinda goofy, but I guess the author had to have a way to distinguish the herds. This would definitely be one of the more unique reads in a year’s time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I seem to love books written from an animal’s point of view. It has been a while since I read one, but this is was very good. I’d love to know if the names bothered anyone else who has read this, or if it is just me!

  3. LizzySiddal says:

    I read “Helpless” a couple of years ago, a complex thriller with more shades of grey than black and white. Review here.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lizzy, Helpless sounds fantastic – I love complex thrillers – especially the dark nature of that one. I’ll be keeping an eye out for all Gowdy books now, but especially Helpless.

  4. Jenny says:

    I want to read Barbara Gowdy at some point, but this doesn’t sound like the one for me. Mister Sandman is the one I think I have on my list, although now I can’t remember anything about it. :p

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I know next to nothing about Gowdy’s books. I just read the first one I found. I’ll have to do a bit more research into her books, but it does look as though White Bone is very different from her others.

  5. Sandra says:

    Glad you enjoyed this story. I have a copy waiting on my shelves and elephants are my favourite animals so I’m really looking forward to reading it. I have read and reviewed Mister Sandman:

    and Helpless:

    Her writing is always good and usually quite original. I can recommend these two.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandra, Thanks for the links. I’m really pleased I’ve discovered such an original author *heads off to read the reviews*

  6. Stujallen says:

    new one to me Jackie ,always find it strange less canadian fiction crosses the atlantic than american ,kevi from canada always highlighting great canada books ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I find it strange to, although perhaps there are just more US books to start with so the percentage that make it is the same? I follow Kevin and agree that he does a great job bringing Canadian books to my attention – especially the Giller prize, which I have a weakness for :-)

  7. raidergirl3 says:

    I remember enjoying this book years ago, but that passage did not seem familiar at all. Glad you are finding some great Canadian authors!

    1. Jackie says:

      raidergirl3, There is no way I’d be able to remember a passage from a book I read years ago so I’m impressed you can :-) I love Canadian authors!

  8. Dorte H says:

    I am all for reading about elephants (fascinating animals), but I am not sure I could take the style.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, The style does take some getting used to. I’m not sure I ever liked it, but the elephant details made up for that.

  9. Tricia says:

    Hi Jackie,

    Gowdy is one of my favourite Canadian authors! I haven’t read The White Bone, and it does sound very different from her other novels.

    I really liked Mister Sandman and The Romantic and Falling Angels. I think that you would like all of these.

    Have you signed up for Canadian Book Challenge 4? I’ve noticed you seem to like a number of Canadain authors!

    1. Jackie says:

      Tricia, It is good to know she has written so many wonderful books. I’ll keep an eye out for anything that she’s written.

      I do have a soft spot for Canadian authors – especially Rohinton Mistry :-) but I’m afraid I don’t want to challenge myself to read Canadian books. I’ll probably do it naturally, but I don’t like the pressure of thinking I have to read a certain number it some how makes it all a bit less fun :-(

      Good luck with your Canadian challenge!

  10. Jeane says:

    The names do sound ridiculous, but I think I’d get used to it. I’ve never read a book about elephants (except for Water for Elephants) so I think I’d like this one!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, I thought Water for Elephants was much better than White Bone, but they were very different books. I hope that you enjoy this one if you decide to read it.

  11. Wow! This book sounds incredible. I love elephants – think they’re one of the most beautiful animals out there, and I think it sucks that they’re killed for ivory. I remember being involved in a campaign of sorts while at school, to spread awareness about elephants and how they’re endangered etc, and the more facts I learnt, the more horrified I was. Same with tigers.

    Going to add this to my wishlist. Thanks for the review, Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, I’m sure this book has done a lot to promote the plight of the elephants – I hope that you enjoy it :-)

  12. I’m a real sucker for book narrated by animals or about animals. I hadn’t hear of this book, Jackie, but I will be off to check it out now :)

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I’m not sure I’m a fan of books about animals, but if they become the narrators I fall for them too! Duncton Wood is one of my all time favourite books – I still think about those poor little moles :-)

  13. This is one of my all-time-favourite books; I think Barbara Gowdy excels at taking the reader and putting them into another, usually startlingly different (and sometimes intensely uncomfortable) perspective.

    I’ve followed her work closely and am always thrilled and anxious when I learn she has something new; thrilled because she is so talented at drawing me into places and anxious because often they are not places that I want to go.

    But The White Bone remains one of my favourites because, while she does work her magic, and pulls me right into the elephants’ perspective, it’s not as uncomfortable as I found it was getting close to some of the characters in Helpless (but I couldn’t put that down either) or Falling Angels.

  14. I’m so pleased you managed to read something by Gowdy! I haven’t actually read this one though – it does sound very different from her other books (which are pretty grounded in reality, and usually in an urban/modern setting).

  15. Kathleen says:

    I would have a hard time with this one. I saw a documentary of elephant abuse once and was so saddened by how these beautiful creatures are treated in places around the world. I stopped going to the circus after seeing the show.

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