Posts tagged ‘Based on a True Story’

The One and Only Ivan

One and Only IvanTitle: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9780061992254
Pages: 305 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2012.

“I just thought of a story,” I say.
“Is it a made-up story or a true one?” Ruby asks.
“True,” I say. “I hope.”
Ruby leans against the bars. Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.
“Once upon a time, I say, “there was a baby elephant. She was smart and brave, and she needed to go to a place called a zoo.”
“What’s a zoo?” Ruby asks.
“A zoo, Ruby, is a place where humans make amends. A good zoo is a place where humans care for animals and keep them safe.”
“Did the baby elephant get to the zoo?” Ruby asks softly.
I didn’t answer right away. “Yes,” I say at last.
“How did the get there?” Ruby asks.
“She had a friend,” I say. “A friend who made a promise.” (166-167)

Ivan the gorilla and Stella the elephant were both born in the wild, but they now live next to each other in a mall circus where they serve as the main attractions. The circus is failing, and Ivan and Stella feel changes in the air. Their caretaker Mack has plans to save the failing circus from bankruptcy, and brings in a baby elephant named Ruby to add to the show. While they were resigned to their own fates, Ruby’s arrival forces Ivan and Stella to reexamine their surroundings. This is not the ideal space for a baby elephant to grow up. With old wounds causing Stella’s health to decline, Ivan must come up with a plan on his own to get them out of their cages and into a better life. But will all his hard work be for nothing?

I thought this was an interesting way to present a memorable animal rights story. Rather than suffer from outright abuse, Ivan and Stella, and eventually Ruby too, suffer more from neglect. Readers witness Ivan’s early years when he was a small but pampered primate, and then his size slowly restricted him to his cage. Mack recognizes that Ivan needs stimulation, allowing him a television and crayons, but has no real idea on how to care for the animals. The lack of funds occasionally leads to lack of proper nutrition for the animals, Stella’s health fails frequently without the veterinary support, and there is one instant of elephant abuse that anyone who saw Water for Elephants might know what is coming.

Grown accustomed to his life, Ivan rarely considers his time before captivity because he knows this is his new normal. He’s even taken to calling his cage his “domain”, even when corrected by a stray dog named Bob who hangs around the circus looking for scraps. This mind over matter philosophical look on life is intriguing, and fits his seemingly easy-going nature and artistic outlook, as he draws what he sees and isn’t particularly driven to create outside those limitations. It’s the appearance of Ruby that changes things. This curious, inquisitive, but scared little elephant brings to light the problems with their situation. I seem to recall a quote about this very idea (which of course I can’t find now) that amounted to not wishing your life or hardships on others, and that’s exactly what Ivan and Stella are feeling. They have some internalized drive to protect and shield her from the hardships of the world.

The author note admits the tale is loosely inspired by a true story of a real gorilla named Ivan who was kept at a circus themed mall in Washington. The timing of this story is ironic, since in August the real Ivan passed away, just seven months after this book was published. The full story of Ivan can be found here: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2018964123_ivan23m.html with many more sites coming up through Google searches. An interesting “look back” is provided by an article in the New York Times from the 1980s when the fight to transfer Ivan to a zoo was in full steam. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/17/us/a-gorilla-sulks-in-a-mall-as-his-future-is-debated.html If that irony wasn’t enough for you, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution did an article about Ivan just one day before his death: http://www.ajc.com/news/lifestyles/gorillas-cruise-into-golden-years-at-zoo-atlanta/nRMLm/

While the story itself is interesting, it lacks immediacy that might have otherwise added to the plot progression. Truthfully, the fight for the real Ivan’s release from confined captivity took much longer than the implied timeline that Applegate portrays in her novel. The primary efforts of getting Ivan and his friends released occurs “off-screen”, and Ivan’s limited viewpoint prevents readers from witnessing it first-hand, although I’m not sure how interesting delayed and drawn-out political wrangling would have been to the intended audience. While this lack of first-hand knowledge of events is frustrating at times, it may have been done intentionally to give readers a sense of how the actions of others (actions that Ivan doesn’t completely understand) have influence on Ivan’s situation. Also unrealistically is the instigation that Ivan in the story provides for his release, which I guess is why so many people see this as fantasy. Yes, we do have communication across species, but it’s I think true fantasy fans would be severely disappointed by this novel, as there is no magic, fantastical creatures, or spells. I think the appeal here is the animal story, especially because it is influenced by actual events. You can’t help but root for Ivan and readers will be satisfied with the conclusion.

An Elephant in the Garden

Title: An Elephant in the Garden
Author: Michael Morpurgo
ISBN: 9780312593698
Pages: 199 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, c2010.

“There was an elephant in the garden, you see. No, honestly there was. And she like potatoes, lots of potatoes.” I think my wry smile must have betrayed me. “You still do not believe me, do you? Well, I cannot say that I blame you. I expect you and all the other nurses think I am just a dotty old bat, a bit loopy, off my rocker, as you say. It is quite true that my bits and pieces do not work so well anymore–which, I suppose, is why I am in here, isn’t it? My legs will not do what I tell them sometimes, and even my heart does not beat like it should. It skips and flutters. It makes up its own rhythm as it goes along, which makes me feel dizzy, and this is not at all convenient for me. But I can tell you for certain and for sure, that my mind is as sound as a bell, sharp as a razor. So when I say there was an elephant in the garden, there really was. There is nothing wrong with my memory, nothing at all.” (14-15)

And with that, the elderly woman named Lizzie begins her story of how, when she was a young girl during World War II, an elephant came to live in her garden. Her mother, an employee of the Dresden Zoo, brought home to care for a baby elephant named Marlene rather than have her killed out of the fear she’d get loose and cause havoc if the city was bombed. Marlene is living in Lizzie’s backyard when Dresden does get bombed, and the family is forced to flee across miles of German landscape with the elephant in tow. But how are they going to find a safe place for themselves, much less a safe place for a very conspicuous and unusual pet?

Michael Morpurgo, probably most well-known for his book War Horse that was recently made into a movie, brings to life this tale that is hailed on the cover as being inspired by a true story. Morpurgo separates fact from fiction very nicely in the author’s note at the very end, clarifying that the story originated from the Belfast Zoo, and you can find articles online about the zoo trying to identify the zookeeper in charge of that initiative. As Morpurgo further clarifies, he took some creative license in setting the story in Dresden, which also “had a zoo there too, and [...] exactly the same order had gone out in that zoo, to shoot all the large animals if the bombers came” (198) That seems to have been a common solution, as this website details the same outcome for the animals in Japanese zoos, although some of them were less humanely starved to death as opposed to being shot.

The story is somewhat unique in that the narration is framed by Lizzie, as an old woman, telling the story to a young boy named Karl in the present day. It then flashes back in time, and is told in the present tense but set in the past, with occasional interruptions coming from Karl and his mother. I can’t think of many children’s stories that present an adult’s perspective, much less are narrated from it.

While there is a bombing that takes place and serves as the main instigator of the trek across country, most of the tension and suspense is internalized. It’s the absurdity of caring for an elephant as refugees, when you don’t have enough food for your human family, that really boggles readers minds, and encourages the thoughts of “Are they crazy?” This trepidation and cluelessness continues as they encounter more and more refugees on their journey that really has no ready itinerary.

I think this would also make a great movie, and the descriptions make it easy to visualize Lizzie’s brother feeding the elephant and Lizzie’s initial resentment towards the creature that is stealing so much of her mother’s attention. Bringing to life the multitude of reactions is something else Morpurgo does with realism, as not everyone is happy about the elephant moving in next door. Give this to animal fans, suckers for “based on a true story,” like me, or anyone who likes stories of insurmountable odds.

The Wave

Title: The Wave
Author: Todd Strasser
ISBN: 0440993717
Pages: 138 pages
Publisher/Date: Dell Laurel-Leaf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, c1981.

The Wave is based on a true incident that occurred in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California, in 1969. For three years afterward, according to the teacher, Ron Jones, no one talked about it. ‘It was,’ he said, ‘one of the most frightening events I have ever experienced in the classroom.’
‘The Wave’ disrupted an entire school. The novel dramatizes the incident, showing how the powerful forces of group pressure that have pervaded many historic movements and cults can persuade people to join such movements and give up their individual rights in the process–sometimes causing great harm to others. The full impact on the students of what they lived through and learned is realistically portrayed in the book that follows.” (Foreword)

I thought this would be a great book to review in honor of Halloween, but I got distracted and then lost Internet at my house, so it didn’t get up yesterday. The thought of how this “experiment” came about is scary though. With minimal persuasion, this high school teacher had recreated an environment that, if left unchecked, could replicate the Nazi beliefs and party. The fact that I’ve never heard of this is just as scary, because it means we haven’t learned from this incident, and we are continuing to teach teens to mindlessly follow the beliefs of people who hold an authority position.

I think I was most shocked by the violence that resulted from the experiment and the division of relationships. Dissenters get beat up and friendships end very quickly based on the peer pressure. I would hope that this wouldn’t happen today, but to be quite honest I could probably see it still taking place.

If you want some more information from the participants, check out this interview that was quoted on Ron Jones’s website. While the ethics are questionable, especially by those who didn’t participate, everyone interviewed seemed to appreciate the lessons taught, even if they were a little shell-shocked when the experiment initially ended. I’d really be curious to see the experiment replicated, and I’d REALLY like to see the book republished, with a 50 years later afterword providing reflections from the participants. I was influenced to read this book by Addie’s Reads and Reviews who recommended it as required reading.

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