Imagine this: You communicate with loved ones hundreds of miles away by emitting infrasonic sounds through the ground. You mourn your dead by weeping, burying the bones, and singing songs containing hundreds of distinct verses. You remember every creature, season, and landscape you’ve ever seen, details you store for your 60-year life span — assuming that poachers don’t kill you first for the sun-bleached bones that jut from your face. The marvelously inventive Barbara Gowdy (Mister Sandman) here performs her greatest creative feat yet: a novel told from the perspective of wild African elephants.
Of course, imagining life through the eyes of another species is like imagining the fourth dimension; we’re literally not equipped to do it. But Gowdy conjures a vibrantly visceral world in the story of Mud, a pregnant orphan adopted by the prickly She-S clan. While visiting a precious swamp during a drought, the She-S’s are attacked by hunters bearing chain saws. The survivors of the slaughter — including Mud — flee into the vast, parched bushland, where they begin a quest for the mythical ”white bone,” a Grail-like object that will lead them to the Safe Place, a tranquil green refuge. Hallucinatory visions, tricksterish cheetahs, a breed of miniature, mystical pachyderms, and all-too-inevitable tragedies await them.
Gowdy got inside her characters’ wrinkly skins through extensive research on elephant intelligence, language, and rituals (the acknowledgments page is a who’s who of elephant experts), information she fleshes out with a precise poetic eye (hippopotamuses are dubbed ”water-boulders”). The White Bone presents a lyrical educated guess on what elephant consciousness might feel like — including, most sadly and movingly, the perpetual threat of extinction. A