Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The One and Only Ivan

Ivan is the title character and narrator of this book.  He's a silverback gorilla, but not a fierce or angry one.  Ivan lives, with a number of other exotic animals, at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Taken as an infant from the jungle, he lived with the mall's owner, Mack, and his family until he became too large and strong and unpredictable. Now he's an attraction that is no longer attracting shoppers.

Ivan, understandably, isn't especially concerned with the shoppers.  His "domain" is small and his life is routine, eating and sleeping and watching television, and chatting with his neighbors.  One is Bob, a stray dog, who comes and goes as he pleases but enjoys sleeping on Ivan's belly.  The other is Stella, an aging retired circus elephant who uses her words as sparingly as Ivan does but always with purpose.

Ivan does have one other friend- Julia, the daughter of the mall's night custodian.  While her father works, she visits with the animals, does her homework, and draws.  Ivan likes to draw, too (although humans usually don't recognize his subjects), and Julia often smuggles extra supplies to him through a broken corner of his enclosure.

In an effort to draw new shoppers and keep his property from going out of business, Mack purchases Ruby, a baby elephant.  She is placed in Stella's enclosure and is confused and full of questions, and a bit skittish at first.  Ruby slowly becomes accustomed to her life at the mall, but her enthusiasm for life begins to wane when it becomes clear that Mack intends to train her for public performance, and he isn't opposed to physically harming her to force her to comply.

At the same time, Stella is succumbing to an injury incurred in her youth, as she was being trained in much the same way that Ruby is now.  Although she says very little about her time with the circus, it clearly pains her to think on it.  She is sadly resigned to her current state, but fears for Ruby's future since she is beginning on the same path.  Stella knows that she cannot help Ruby, and as she senses her life drawing to a close, she begs Ivan to promise that he will rescue Ruby.

Ivan is a bit baffled by the request, but he'd do anything for Stella.  But now he's in a quandary- how can he help Stella?  Does she even need helping?  After all, is life at the mall really that bad?  But before her death, Stella had been prompting Ivan to exercise his memory, and to think back about what he loved about his life before he was taken from his family and the jungle.  As things start to come back to him, he realizes that his domain really is a cage, and he has to get some one's attention to help all of them.

Katherine Applegate was inspired to write this novel after learning about the story of the real Ivan, a shopping mall attraction in Washington state who spent nearly 3 decades enclosed indoors before public outrage and the mall's financial troubles facilitated his placement in a more lifelike habitat at Zoo Atlanta.  The real life Ivan passed away recently and was one of the zoo's most popular family members.  You can read more about him here.

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