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Saturday, June 13, 2015

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate
illustrations by Patricia Castelao

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It's not as easy as it looks.

It's this brilliant opening that hooked the 7 year old (and me)  in.

Loosely based on a true story about a gorilla that was plucked from its habitat and family at a tender age and raised among humans, and paraded as a caged curiosity in an animal-themed mall in Washington state, the author weaves a memorable tale that is powerful, endearing, funny, life-affirming, gentle, heart-wrenching, and heartwarming all at the same time.

Mack got Ivan as a baby and took care of him until Ivan got too big and too rambunctious as is wont for gorillas. Finally, at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, Mack settles down with Ivan and Stella, a female African circus elephant who was trained to contort and balance her mighty frame in impossible ways for the entertainment of humans.

The daily life in these surroundings as related by Ivan, along with his sidekick/friend Bob the dog, makes up the first part of the book.

Some animals live privately, unwatched, but that is not my life.

My life is flashing lights and pointing fingers and uninvited visitors. Inches away, humans flatten their little hands against the wall of glass that separates us.

Here in my domain, I do not have much to do.

In my domain, I have a tire swing, a baseball, a tiny plastic pool filled with dirty water, and even an old TV.

The janitor's daughter Julia is a breath of fresh air. She hangs out at the mall doing her homework while her dad does the cleaning at nights. She strikes up a rapport with Ivan. They bond over art. See, Ivan is an artist. So is Julia. Ivan's finger-paintings sell for a good price at the mall gift shop that puts food on Mack's table. Stella's circus antics with Snickers the dog presumably feeds Mack's little menagerie. Julia brings extra art supplies for Ivan on and off. She shows her original works to Ivan as often as inspiration strikes. Ivan reciprocates.

Then, Ruby arrives. A baby elephant. The lurking mother in Stella surfaces to envelop Ruby in as much warmth as can be shared under the circumstances. Suddenly the festering wounds in Stella's legs worsen and she dies within a few hours, overnight, before any help can arrive. But, Stella extracts a promise from Ivan before she dies: Take care of Ruby as best as you can. Ivan agrees, no questions.

The rest of the book is an uplifting tale of how Ivan finds a way to save Ruby from a life of confinement and indignity that Stella endured. And incidentally, he ends up improving his own quality of life as well.

All's well that ends reasonably well. Ivan and Ruby are settled in a zoo thanks to Ivan's efforts and Julia's unwavering support. Ivan gets his own gorilla family. Ruby is showered with love by the wise matriarchs. And the book ends with Ivan accepting his role as the Mighty Silverback.

The words are perfectly chiseled, none wasted. Told in Ivan's voice, the narration is not bitter or accusing in any narrow sense. It flows with gentle wisdom and acceptance of certain realities. Almost every sentence in this book is quotable.

Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.

I learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

The short chapters in Ivan's voice kept us completely enthralled. I strongly believe in reading aloud, so, I read a few chapters every night to the kid and before we knew it, the book was done, leaving us wanting for more.

The 7 yo was quite upset that the book ended, just like that, with Ivan accepting his new family, his domain at the zoo, whispering, "Mighty Silverback." What did he do after that? What was his daily life like? Did he ever get to talk to Ruby again? Did Julia and Bob visit him every day? Won't Bob miss Ivan so much? Why can't Stella have been alive a little longer so she can go to the zoo too with Ruby? Did Mack really use the claw-stick on Ruby? Why would Mack hurt the baby? How did Ivan know to make the letters that spell 'HOME'? Can Ivan really read? So many questions that the kid wanted desperately to know very specific answers to - no ambiguity...

Oh, and "me-balls" was such a hit, of course.

A me-ball is made by rolling up dung until it's the size of a small apple, then letting it dry. I always keep a few on hand.

For some reason, my visitors never seem to carry any.

And, the two chapters side-by-side - "Three Vistors" and "My Visitors Return" - simply outstanding! The kid asked me to go back and read them over and over. The role of the glass both as a barrier of confinement and as a barrier of protection is beyond brilliant.

The boy spits at my window. The girl throws a handful of pebbles.

Sometimes I am glad the glass is there.


The children pound their pathetic chests. They toss more pebbles.

"Slimy chimps," I mutter. I throw a me-ball at them.

Sometimes I wish the glass were not there.

[Image source:]

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