Thursday, May 30, 2019

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

This book is part of out not-particularly-systematic exploration of the Newbery Award winners and honor books. The One and Only Ivan won the award in 2013. 

 The One and Only Ivan is very loosely based on a true story. At the core is the real life of Ivan, a gorilla who spent 27 years of his life living in a small cage in a mall in Tacoma Washington, but eventually was sent to a zoo after an extended protest by animal rights activists. Other than those facts, however, the story is completely fictional - a point the author makes clear in the afterword.

The book itself is a bit of a downer - it is told from the point of view of Ivan, who is generally easygoing and sanguine about his life. However, it is clear that his situation is not ideal - and it is deeply uncomfortable for the other animals that live in the mall. The older elephant, Stella, has memories of before she was captured, and the new baby elephant, Ruby, is given abusive and exhausting show training. The comic relief is Bob, the sarcastic stray dog, who is content to be feral and steal food.

The book does have a number of good qualities. First, the writing is simple but evocative. Since Ivan is the narrator, the prose is intended to be the sort of thoughts he would have. Thus, he doesn’t understand all of how technology or humans work - but he is intelligent (as he was in real life), and philosophical.

The story is told in what is essentially a series of vignettes, which differ greatly in length. They are headed by simple one or two word titles, and can be as short as a sentence or as long as a dozen paragraphs. (I am guessing a bit here, as it was an audiobook and I couldn’t literally count paragraphs - but you can make a good approximation.)

Because of Ivan’s laid back personality, he tends to underplay the neglect that the animals suffer. This, of course, increases the impact. I am glad my kids have a reasonable tolerance for tough themes, because the depiction of animal abuse and neglect is pretty hard to hear or read.

The book does have a happy ending, such as it is. Ivan clearly was not going to be able to be returned to the wild - even after being around his own kind for years at the zoo, he was never going to be a wild gorilla. But the circumstances at modern zoos is a far cry from the past, and thus the ending is as good as one could expect.

The audiobook was narrated by Adam Grupper, a veteran of screen and stage. His baritone fit the gorilla perfectly, yet he was able to capture the other voices well - even the female ones. His other audiobooks appear to be mostly Tom Clancy and political non-fiction. I’d love to see him do more kids’ fiction, as this one was quite good.

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