The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate ★★★★½
Edition: HarperCollins (2012), eBook, OverDrive READ, 320 pages
Highlights: ALA Notable Children’s Book (2013), Newbery Medal (2013)
Original publication date: 2012
I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It’s not as easy as it looks.
People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan,
Humans waste words. The toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.
Everyone knows the peels are the best part.
I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you probably also think
we can’t walk upright.
Try knuckle walking for an hour. Tell me, which way is more fun?
I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human
speech is not the same as understanding humans.
Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise
even when they have nothing to say.
It took me some time to recognize all those sounds, to weave words into things.
But I was patient.
Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.
Gorillas are as patient as stones, humans, not so much.”
So begins Ivan the ape’s tale. Ivan is a silverback and has been living in a glass cage at the Exit 8 Video Arcade and Big Top Mall for the last 30 years. He used to be a star attraction. He delighted visitors with his feats of eating (around to 45 pounds of fruit and leaves and rotten wood and yogourt-covered raisins a day), watching tv, and with his crayon drawings; his pictures are sold for $25 each at the gift shop (framed) and people keep buying them. But now that Ivan is older and not so cute, and visibly not very happy in his glass enclosure (one wall of which is painted with scenery of a rainfall in the jungle), people don’t visit the circus so much anymore, and his owner Mack, who adopted Ivan when he arrived in a crate as a baby straight from the jungle after his parents had been murdered, is desperate to find ways to make ends meet. As it is, he has to cut back on food and might have to stop the heating the mall in the winter at night. Ivan grew up with Mack, being treated like a small child, taken to McDonald’s and the fun fair and wearing kid’s clothes and sleeping in the same bed as Mac in his house. When he became bigger and unruly, he was put in this glass cage at the Big Top Mall, and there’s a large billboard he can see from his spot advertising the circus and its daily shows at two, four and seven, 365 days a year, with The One and Only Ivan as the star attraction. Unlike his portrait on the billboard though, Ivan is far from being fierce, and like most gorillas, is actually a gentle soul.
Ivan enjoys his fame, but he’d be even more lonely and bored if it wasn’t for his friends, including Stella, an old elephant which Mack bought from a circus when she became lame after a badly healed accident while performing a trick. Her foot is constantly infected, and Mack can’t afford to call in a vet ‘every time she sneezes’, as he says. Ivan also has a good friend in Bob, who showed up as a tiny puppy through a hole in a bottom corner of Ivan’s glass enclosure and fell asleep on his tummy at night, which is where Ivan discovered him when he woke up in the morning. Bob was abandoned on the freeway and he doesn’t trust humans, is proud in fact of being free to roam as he likes. He’s always remained a tiny little thing, and always sleeps on Ivan’s tummy at night, which is comforting to both. Ivan, Stella and Bob can all understand each other, and though they use few words, they converse every day and keep each other company that way, making each other feel loved and appreciated. They do have one human friend: Julia, who is the daughter of George the janitor who comes in to clean every night. Julia always accompanies her father to spend time with the animals, and though she’s supposed to do her homework, she’d rather spend time drawing and painting the animals, and frequently slips Ivan art supplies through his hole. Then one day, Mack brings in a new arrival: Ruby is a baby elephant, just purchased cheap from a bankrupt circus who kept her for just a month and tried to “break” her to perform tricks by keeping her four feet tied down 23 hours a day. Stella takes her under her wing and encourages Ruby to do what she must to survive in this new environment. But then Stella becomes very very sick from the unhealed foot infection, and thinking she will breathe her last soon, makes Ivan promise he will save Ruby from the same fate of spending her whole life in wretched conditions such as these.
From the first lines of the book, which are delivered in short spurts in a series of “chapters” under headings like those shown above, we learn about Ivan’s way of looking at the world and eventually about his ingenious plan to save Ruby. Though he’s survived—unlike his twin sister who died when they were originally put in a shipping crate when they were captured—by intentionally forgetting his past, deliberately putting out of his mind the time when he was a baby gorilla, roaming free in the jungle surrounded by those of his kind in his close-knit family unit, Ruby keeps demanding stories to keep away the daily boredom, and Ivan, who isn’t very good at storytelling (unlike Stella, who remembered everything she’d ever seen and heard), forces himself to revisit his past to have a story to tell, and learns to rely on resources he never knew he had until they became necessary for him to keep his promise to his friend.
This look at animals in captivity under the worst kind of conditions is absolutely heart-wrenching, and if like me you believe that animals have their own form of intelligence and real feelings and souls too, you can’t help but be deeply affected by this tale. But beyond the story about cruelty and animal rights, is also a tale about the loneliness and alienation we all feel from time to time, and about the resources we can all reach for inside ourselves, with a little prompting and a nudge from caring friends. I think this is a story that will remain with me for a long, long time.
I wasn’t surprised to find out in the end that Applegate was inspired by the real-life story of a gorilla in Tacoma, Wash., named Ivan. “After being kept alone in a cage at a mall for 27 years, he became a celebrity after being placed with a large group of gorillas in the Atlanta zoo, where he made paintings and signed them with a thumbprint.” (NYT blog). The real-life Ivan had lived under similar conditions as those described in the book, until National Geographic aired a featured called The Urban Gorilla, which fuelled protests by animals right’s activists (also see link to NYT article below). The book certainly more than deserved the Newbery Medal it received last year, and the only reason I didn’t give it the full 5 stars is because of how wretchedly sad it made me feel, though there is a message of hope and a happy resolution in the end.
The real life Ivan died on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50 at Zoo Atlanta.
Here are some related links :
A Gorilla Sulks in a Mall as His Future Is Debated (NYT)
The Urban Gorilla on YouTube (National Geographic )