Sorry for the old (very old) joke, but I couldn’t resist.
You might be familiar with the story of Ivan, the gorilla kept in a small shopping center in Tacoma until finally sold to a humane zoo in Atlanta, where he had his first interaction with other gorillas, not to mention Nature, in 30 years. Ivan narrates this book, and it’s a sweet, and even happy, tale. At the shopping center, Ivan’s friends are an elderly elephant, a stray dog, and a young girl. Then, when a baby elephant joins the “zoo”, things change for Ivan. Told in his voice, the story moves quietly towards the crisis point, emotions muted until Ivan is forced to act like the great ape that he is. You have to cheer when he finally lets the gorilla out.
Applegate’s book has a happy ending, but it raises questions about how we treat animals kept in captivity for our entertainment and profit. Ivan was born in the wild in Central Africa; there, his parents were butchered, and he and his sister were boxed up and sent abroad. The sister died, but Ivan learned to survive. Once in the US, he was held in a one-room “domain” — one wall painted with jungle scenery and the other three solid glass — with only a tire swing, a small pool, and a stuffed gorilla as ersatz environment. Who are the villains here? The Africans who killed Ivan’s family? The Tacoma owner who put Ivan on display for so long? The citizens of Tacoma and other visitors who paid money to see him?
Ivan was also an artist, starting when he was in captivity at that shopping center. Using mud, crayons, pencils, and eventually finger paints, Ivan created works that were displayed next to the gorilla-hand ashtrays. It’s a disturbing statement on commerce, that juxtaposition.
It’s also disturbing that Ivan has a Facebook page, but that’s probably just my own hang-up about the thin line between privacy and whatever its opposite is. Poor Ivan. No privacy at all for decades, yet once rescued he becomes so famous he can’t be left alone. In the end (he died in 2012), he makes headlines across the country.
If nothing else, this book should make you think carefully about zoos and circuses. At what point do we become collaborators in animal torture? We’re fascinated by wild things, and, like greedy magpies, we want to put the wild things into our pocket and display them at home. NYC’s Central Park Zoo used to have two polar bears, Gus and Ida. Gus was famously depressed, and I remember feeling appalled at watching him swim his unending laps, round and round, as though an automaton. And then appalled at myself for being mesmerized by his unhappiness, the car crash I can’t turn my gaze from.
Newbery Fun Fact: Will James, the author of the 1927 Newbery Award winner (Smoky, the Cowhorse), immigrated to the US from Canada in 1913 and was briefly imprisoned for cattle rustling. I believe he’s the only Newbery author to have spent time in the pokey.