Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Gorilla’s Point of View Illuminates the Relationship between Humans and Animals
The 2013 Newbery Medal winner, The One and Only Ivan, can be read simply, as a hopeful, delightful children’s tale that occasionally plucks at the heartstrings with its message of friendship and responsibility, or it can be read deeply, as a scathing critique of human behavior, calling into question the notions of stewardship and empathy for those unable to speak for themselves.
Inspired by the true story of a gorilla who lived for almost three decades as an attraction in a shopping mall before the animal rights movement rallied to his cause and had him relocated to more suitable quarters in a zoo, The One and Only Ivan gives voice to the voiceless, letting this fictional Ivan speak for himself, as narrator of his own story.
With great skill, the author brings the gorilla’s mind to life.
This gorilla has complex emotions, although he has taught
himself to repress the painful parts of his life and content himself with what
joy he can find in his domain, a small, glass-walled cage with a jungle mural
painted at the back.
He draws pictures, which sell for twenty dollars in the gift shop (twenty five with frame). He talks with his best friend, an elephant named Stella, who is made to perform several shows a day despite a chronic injury incurred during her years in the circus. He sleeps with a stray dog named Bob curled up on his belly. He silently communicates with Julia, the daughter of the mall’s janitor, who sits beside his cage every night, drawing pictures as her father admonishes her, over and over, to do her homework.
While Stella, with the memory of an elephant, is able to recall stories and jokes and her own personal history, Ivan refuses to confront his own painful past.
Here is the soul of the book. When the financially struggling mall owner acquires Ruby, a baby elephant, in hopes of boosting attendance, the animals cannot help but analyze the relationship between their kind and the humans that currently controls them.
Some of the material is painful to hear. Ruby’s memories of
her family’s death and her own capture are fresh and clear in her mind, and she
eventually forces Ivan to confront the similar trauma that brought him to this
point in his life.
However, there are no black and whites or easy answers.
Humans cannot be all bad. In one example, Ruby tells another story, taking
place before her family was slaughtered, in which an entire village works
together to rescue her from a deep hole and return her to her herd.
Even the negligent, money-minded mall owner, whose
tight-fisted ways lead to Stella’s death, is not a complete villain, as Ivan
recalls that the man raised him from a baby, in his own home, treating him as a
child until his size and strength become overwhelming.
It is Ruby, also, who inspires Ivan to use all the resources available to him to communicate his situation to the larger world.
It is one thing to accept a less than ideal fate for oneself, but another to watch an innocent child condemned. The One and Only Ivan speaks to the powerful on behalf of the powerless. Just as Ivan must protect Ruby if she is to thrive and if he is to live with his conscience for the rest of his life, humans must protect other creatures on the planet. This book asks the reader to develop his or her own sense of empathy, to question the status quo, and to consider becoming, in thought or in action, a champion for the oppressed.
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