“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.