My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult immediately landed itself on my absolute favorites list. Every word, every chapter, every character connected with me in some way "leaving me" sad when the book ended.
Leaving Time traces the cold case story of Jenna Metcalf and her search to find her missing mother Alice Metcalf. Alice disappeared on their family's elephant sanctuary when Jenna was just a small child and she's been searching for her ever since. She lives with her grandmother, who simply won't talk about her mom in any way, so Jenna is on her own to uncover the mystery. She feels certain her mother is still alive somewhere. Her father, Thomas, is in a facility for people out of their minds and while Jenna visits him from time to time, she feels no connectivity to him; she wants her mother.
This novel is shrouded in a deep mystery of what really happened that night amongst the gentle giants. As Jenna begins to pull pieces together with the help of a reluctant detective and an even more reluctant physic, the make-up of her family and their friends becomes a tangled weave of love, hurt, shame, and regret. Processing so much for Jenna, from so little, is a struggle she is powering through to reach the end of her journey.
Within the plot of this, there is the sub-plot of elephants. Sub-plot is not entirely the right word, because as you read, it's almost as if you're reading more than one novel: Jenna Metcalf's story, and a non-fiction piece about the lives and habits of elephants. I admit, I loved the elephants as much, if not more, than the humans in the tale. I learned there is an elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN about an hour from my home and I have every intention on going there. I cannot see the animals, that's against their policy as it is a sanctuary, but I can hear them, even smell them I'm sure, and this closeness is enough for me right now. I've never been quite so drawn to the behaviors of wildlife before. Picoult brought to life an entirely new world for me and I am grateful. The website for the sanctuary in Hohenwald is http://www.elephants.com and you can go here and watch the animals via webcams. Yes, that is awesome. Ms. Picoult visited both the sanctuary in Hohenwald and traveled to Africa to do her research on these beautiful creatures.
This story is as moving as it is informative. I loved every character and the way Picoult volleyed the time and plot. A definite must read.
Jodi Picoult and her book were recently featured on the Well Read Book Club: http://www.wellread.org/the-books/boo...
This even included an author talk and she said something during her discussion that impacted me profoundly: "I don't really believe in writer's block. Write every day - you can always edit a bad page, but you can't edit a blank page." Or something very close to that. Her words in life are as inspiring as her stories on the page.
An excerpt from the novel via her website (http://www.jodipicoult.com/leaving-ti...):
An excerpt from Leaving Time
Some people used to believe that there was an elephant graveyard—a place that sick and old elephants would travel to die. They’d slip away from their herds and would lumber across the dusty landscape, like the titans we read about in seventh grade in Greek Mythology. Legend said the spot was in Saudi Arabia; that it was the source of a supernatural force; that it contained a book of spells to bring about world peace.
Explorers who went in search of the graveyard would follow dying elephants for weeks, only to realize they’d been led in circles. Some of these voyagers disappeared completely. Some could not remember what they had seen, and not a single explorer who claimed to find the graveyard could ever locate it again.
Here’s why: The elephant graveyard is a myth.
True, researchers have found groups of elephants that died in the same vicinity, many over a short period of time. My mother, Alice, would have said there’s a perfectly logical reason for a mass burial site: a group of elephants who died all at once due to lack of food or water; a slaughter by ivory hunters. It’s even possible that the strong winds in Africa could blow a scattering of bones into a concentrated pile. Jenna, she would have told me, there’s an explanation for everything you see.
There is plenty of information about elephants and death that are not fables, but instead cold, hard science. My mother would have been able to tell me that, too. We would have sat, shoulder to shoulder, beneath the massive oak where Maura liked to shade herself, watching the elephant pick up acorns with her trunk and pitch them. My mother would rate each toss like an Olympic judge. 8.5 . . . 7.9. Ooh! A perfect 10.
Maybe I would have listened. But maybe, too, I would have just closed my eyes. Maybe I would have tried to memorize the smell of bug spray on my mother’s skin, or the way she absent-mindedly braided my hair, tying it off on the end with a stalk of green grass.
Maybe the whole time I would have been wishing there really was an elephant graveyard, except not just for elephants. Because then I’d be able to find her.
When I was nine—before I grew up and became a scientist—I thought I knew everything, or at least I wanted to know everything, and in my mind there was no difference between the two. At that age, I was obsessed with animals. I knew that a group of tigers was called a “streak.” I knew that dolphins were carnivores. I knew that giraffes had four stomachs and that the leg muscles of a locust were 1000 times more powerful than the same weight of human muscle. I knew that white polar bears had black skin beneath their fur, and that jellyfish have no brains. I knew all these facts from the Time-Life monthly animal fact cards that I had received as a birthday gift from my father, who had moved out a year ago and now lived in San Francisco with his best friend Frank, who my mother called “the other woman” when she thought I wasn’t listening.
Every month new cards arrived in the mail, and then one day, in October of 1977, the best card of all arrived: the one about elephants. I cannot tell you why they were my favorite animal. Maybe it was my bedroom, with its green shag jungle carpet and the wallpaper border of cartoon pachyderms dancing across the walls. Maybe it was the fact that the first movie I’d ever seen, as a toddler, was Dumbo. Maybe it was because the silk lining inside my mother’s fur coat, the one she had inherited from her own mother, was made from an Indian sari and printed with elephants.
From that Time-Life card, I learned the basics about elephants. They were the largest land animals on the planet, sometimes weighing more than six tons. They ate 300-400 pounds of food each day. They had the longest pregnancy of any land mammal—22 months. They lived in breeding herds, led by a female matriarch, often the oldest member of the group. She was the one who decided where the group went every day, when they took a rest, where they ate and where they drank. Babies were raised and protected by all the female relatives in the herd, and traveled with them, but when males were about thirteen years old, they left—sometimes preferring to wander on their own, and sometimes gathering with other males in a bull group.
But those were facts that everyone knew. I, on the other hand, became obsessed and dug a little deeper, trying to find out everything I could at the school library and from my teachers and books. So I also could tell you that elephants got sunburned, which is why they would toss dirt on their backs and roll in the mud. Their closest living relative was the rock hyrax, a tiny furry thing that looked like a guinea pig. I knew that just like a human baby sucks its thumb to calm itself down, an elephant calf might sometimes suck its trunk. I knew that in 1916, in Erwin, Tennessee, an elephant named Mary was tried and hanged for murder.
In retrospect I am sure my mother got tired of hearing about elephants. Maybe that is why, one Saturday morning, she woke me before the sun came up and told me we were going on an adventure. There were no zoos near where we lived in Connecticut, but the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Massachusetts had a real, live elephant—and we were going to see her.
To say I was excited was an understatement. I peppered my mother with elephant jokes for hours:
What’s beautiful, gray, and wears glass slippers? Cinderelephant.
Why are elephants wrinkled? They don’t fit on the ironing board.
How do you get down from an elephant? You don’t. You get down from a goose.
Why do elephants have trunks? Because they’d look funny with glove compartments.
When we got to the zoo, I raced along the paths until I found myself standing in front of Morganetta the elephant.
Who looked nothing like what I had imagined.
This was not the majestic animal featured on my Time-Life card, or in the books I had studied. For one thing, she was chained to a giant cement block in the center, so that she couldn’t walk very far in any direction. There were sores on her hind legs from the shackles. She was missing an eye, and with her other, she wouldn’t look at me. I was just another person who had come to stare at her, in her prison.
My mother was stunned by her condition, too. She flagged down a zookeeper, who said that Morganetta had once been in local parades, and had done stunts like competing against undergrads in a tug-o’-war at a nearby school, but that she had gotten unpredictable and violent in her old age. She’d lashed out at visitors with her trunk if they came too close to her cage. She had broken a caretaker’s wrist.
I started to cry.
My mother bundled me back to the car for the four hour drive home, although we had only been at the zoo for ten minutes.
“Can’t we help her?” I asked.
This is how, at age nine, I became an elephant advocate. After a trip to the library, I sat down at my kitchen table, and I wrote to the mayor of Springfield, MA, asking him to give Morganetta more space, and more freedom.
He didn’t just write me back. He sent his response in the Boston Globe, who published it, and then a reporter called to do a story on the nine-year-old who had convinced the mayor to move Morganetta into the much larger buffalo enclosure at the zoo. I was given a special Concerned Citizen award at my elementary school assembly. I was invited back for the grand opening to cut the red ribbon with the mayor. Flash bulbs went off in my face, blinding me, as Morganetta roamed behind us. This time, she looked at me with her good eye. And I knew, I just knew, she was still miserable. The things that had happened to her—the chains and the shackles, the cage and the beatings, maybe even the memory of the moment she was taken out of a forest somewhere in Africa—all that was still with her in that buffalo enclosure, and it took up all the extra space.
For the record, Mayor Dimauro did continue to try to make life better for Morganetta. In 1979, after the demise of Forest Park’s resident polar bear, the facility closed and Morganetta was moved to the Los Angeles Zoo. Her home there was much bigger. It had a pool, and toys, and two older elephants.
If I knew back then what I know now, I could have told the mayor that just because you stick an elephant in proximity with others does not mean they will form friendships. They are as unique in their personalities as humans are, and just as you would not assume that two random humans would become close friends, you should not assume that two elephants will bond simply because they are both elephants. Morganetta continued to spiral deeper into depression, losing weight and deteriorating. Approximately one year after she arrived in LA, she was found dead in the bottom of the enclosure’s pool.
The moral of this story is that sometimes, you can attempt to make all the difference in the world, and it still is like trying to stem the tide with a sieve.
The moral of this story is that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we want it . . . some stories just don’t have a happy ending.
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