The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

The White BoneInformation

Goodreads: The White Bone
Series: None
Source: Library

Official Summary

For years, young Mud and her family have roamed the high grasses, swamps, and deserts of the sub-Sahara. Now the earth is scorched by drought, and the mutilated bodies of family and friends lie scattered on the ground, shot down by ivory hunters. Nothing-not the once familiar terrain, or the age-old rhythms of life, or even memory itself-seems reliable anymore. Yet a slim prophecy of hope is passed on from water hole to water hole: the sacred white bone of legend will point the elephants toward the Safe Place. And so begins a quest through Africa’s vast and perilous plains-until at last the survivors face a decisive trial of loyalty and courage.


Presenting the world through the eyes of elephants, The White Bone is a powerful and moving novel about nature and the vast intelligence and awareness of animals.  The protagonists, ranging from visionary Mud to the “link bull” Tall Time  to flirtatious She-Snorts, encompass a wide variety of developed personalities.  These elephants laugh, cry, doubt, and rage—experiencing emotions that until recently we believed unique to humans, but experiencing and acting upon them in distinctly animalistic ways.

Gowdy imagines her elephants as a spiritual species.  Each family group includes a visionary and a mind talker, the only ones who can communicate with other animal species.  The elephants worship a powerful She and carry a long tradition of legends about their creation, the corruption of humans, and their afterlife.  The plot focuses on a mystical white bone, which, if found, can lead them all to the Safe Place, where they need fear drought and human poachers no longer.  Although some of the elephants’ beliefs could bear a little more explanation, and the mind talkers are not entirely necessary to the plot, Gowdy’s vision of elephants as a spiritual and contemplative group seems fitting.

However, Gowdy does not neglect the extreme physicality of elephants, as she grounds the novel in realism and animal instinct.  For instance, there are frequent references to animal dung and urine, and their surprising number of uses—tracking other elephants, food during a famine, a poultice for a wound.  The elephants are also highly sexual, and while a few of the characters explore concepts like love and the unnatural state of monogamy, many are happy to recount their various sexual desires and escapades with less emotional attachment.  The book even opens with Mud’s renaming to She-Snorts, as she has mated for the first time and official become a cow.

The emphasis on the daily lives of elephants means The White Bone is not quite as much of a quest story as the summary might suggest.  The elephants are indeed looking for the white bone, having experienced enough recent tragedy to make the adventure worthwhile, even if some elephants believe the bone is merely a myth.  However, most of the elephants tend to keep an eye out for the bone as they do other things—track lost family members, look for food, mourn their dead, avoid poachers.  In many ways The White Bone is “slice of life” about the lives of elephants—and it is nothing but fascinating.  Gowdy’s combination of known elephant fact with speculation about their thoughts, desires, and abilities makes her characters both real and awe-inspiring.

The White Bone will resonate marvelously with animal lovers, but is such an interesting exercise of the imagination that its artistry, emotion, and creatively should impress any reader.  Highly original, and highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

    • Briana says:

      A professor recommended it to me because I like elephants! I like your sister already, too, now! 😀

      The book is a bit sad for elephant fans because obviously the animals go through a lot of hardships in the plot, but it’s very interesting and well-written so I think your sister will enjoy it.


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