The White Bone


330 pages
ISBN 0-00-224395-4
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the trade, scholarly, and reference editor of the
Canadian Book Review Annual.


In the aftermath of a massacre at the hands of ivory poachers, the
surviving members of an African elephant family search for a missing
relative. Over the course of their journey, they and other elephant
survivors quest for the white bone. According to legend, the white bone
will lead them to The Safe Place, a paradise of “tranquillity and
permanent green browse.” Theirs is a tale of endurance as they
struggle with their injuries and the debilitating effects of a
protracted drought. A central theme is the connection between memory,
identity, and loss. Memory permits the heartbreaking experience of loss,
but at the same time it preserves identity. Moreover, memory is identity
for these creatures—in that elephants, as a family matriarch defines
them, are “living memory.”

Gowdy’s elephants are wonderfully individualized, and their
world—which features, among other elements, an intricate cosmology, a
distinctive vocabulary (for example, a helicopter is a “roar fly,” a
rhino is a “ghastly,” testicles are “fruits,” and a crocodile is
a “jaw log”), rituals of mourning and celebration, visions and
omens, intra- and extraspecies telepathy, and an abundance of earthy
detail, including the utilitarian and ceremonial uses of dung—is
splendidly and persuasively evoked. Gowdy’s prose, always an exemplar
of lucidity, on occasion inspires awe: “When she passes the remains of
the zebra who looked at her before its eye was plucked out, she wonders
how far down the vulture’s gullet the zebra’s eyeball preserved her

In The White Bone, as in real life, elephants have only one enemy:
humans, or “hindleggers.” According to elephantine cosmology, dead
members of this unspeakably rapacious species are banished to The
Fissure, a place of perdition under the Earth. Gowdy’s harrowing
description of the elephant massacre early on in this extraordinary book
will lead more than a few readers to cheer that day of reckoning on—at
least as far as hindleggers of the poacher variety are concerned.


Gowdy, Barbara., “The White Bone,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 15, 2024,