While the nature-versus-nurture debate drones on in the background much like a TV turned up just loud enough to be pretend company, author Barbara Gowdy questions how—not if—life and family change people. She’s a curious, mischievous, but ultimately benevolent creator, inflicting traumas both freakish and banal on her actors, then watching, fascinated, as they react—specifically within the confines of the family. Her second book, Falling Angels, trailed three sisters who discover evidence of a missing fourth child, who becomes their silent partner during a traumatic stay in the family bomb shelter. In Mister Sandman Mother and Father are closeted homosexuals; their mentally absent eldest daughter gives birth to a brain-damaged child, Joan, whom they raise as their own, while their younger daughter sleeps around to deal with her familial chaos. The seemingly endless combinations—mother-father, sister-sister, father-sister, and so on—are each a petri dish in which Gowdy giddily experiments, poking and prodding till she finds the exact admixture of each character’s soul.
Gowdy’s laboratory in The White Bone, her fourth novel, is the She-S family, a matriarchal elephant clan struggling to survive both a killing drought and an onslaught of ivory poachers. Gowdy speaks from the minds of the elephants themselves, inventing a language that references their surroundings as she imagines they appear. Humans are “hindleggers,” cheetahs, “longbodies,” and a “flowstick,” a snake. The She-S elephants, not inappropriately or unexpectedly, see the world in a way that is recognizably human. Elephants are as loyal and attached to their families as humans, possibly more so. Gowdy brilliantly imbues these uncommon characters with wrenching emotions. Even though the elephants clash over how to survive, their relationships are intimate, romantic, and sometimes traumatic—one cow struggles so hard to lift her fallen sister she breaks her own tusk. As the narrator claims: “To a degree that we would call maudlin they are sentimental; even the big bulls are. Any kind of loss or yearning breaks their hearts.”
In creative high gear, Gowdy endows the She-Ss and their neighbors with a complex spirituality, a religion that orders the universe around the She One, the “mother of all elephants,” and offers salvation through the location of a lost white bone that, when thrown, points the way to a promised land called the Safe Place. There, water is abundant and the only thing hindleggers do to elephants is watch. As the She-Ss trundle through their parched homeland, surviving massacres and searching for succor, each member is transformed by the plights they suffer.
At the center of the story is a triangle of elephants, all victims of some sort of trauma. Gowdy is not interested in the golden children, but rather the tarnished eccentrics who use their “defects” as boons. In The White Bone, she clearly yokes misfortune with psychological powers. Sometimes those gifts have a supernatural aspect; other times they are just a matter of experience breeding knowlege. Mud, a young female, was maimed physically and psychologically when her mother died and fell on her. The injuries change her, though. Shortly after her mother’s death, she begins to see into the future, and it is this sight that helps her lead the She-Ss toward the Safe Place. Date Bed is Mud’s beloved and age-mate, another She-S female whose human-inflicted injury—a bullet wound in the head—helps her engineer a momentous encounter with the White Bone. The third, Tall Time, was also orphaned when his mother died giving birth. As a defense against the vagaries of fate he has learned every omen, or “link,” in the elephant world as a way to protect his loved ones from harm. Infatuated with Mud but loved by Date Bed, he struggles to read the links in order to guard the She-Ss, but even more, the unborn calf he has fathered in Mud.
Damage, change, experience—in Gowdy’s creations these things don’t make people, or elephants, saints, they simply endow them with a power that they didn’t have before. It is Mud, Date Bed, and Tall Time’s damaged histories that allow them to save their families. In a similar way, Mister Sandman‘s Joan—dropped on her head at birth and left mute—was the savior of her family, liberating them from their poisonous secrets by surreptitiously taping them as they confessed stories they thought she couldn’t hear or understand. The collage of sounds she creates from her tapes brings all the family skeletons out, horrifying her “darlings,” as she calls them, but ultimately freeing them.
Elephants whose mothers fall on them and infants who are dropped on their heads usually don’t thrive. Their damage does them in. That is how we understand the world, as a place where only the strong survive. But what, Gowdy wonders, about the ineffable transformations which aren’t understood: the way a calf is changed when she goes into estrus for the first time, or how a “brain-damaged” child like Joan interprets the world? It could be that it’s her belief in these unusual possibilities that pumps Gowdy so full of creative juice. There’s a warmth in Gowdy’s writing that can only stem from the certainty that there is wondrousness in the most derelict and unexpected circumstances—that life in all forms is awesome. Writing from the point of view of animals is a very concrete way of expressing that: of turning your back on the belief that humans—or, by extension, “normals”—hold the exclusive rights to important experience, to the business of making the world right.