Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

“Gorillas are not complainers. We're dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers."

Some books are epic. Some books are for a lifetime. Some books leave an indelible mark. And some books leave us overwhelmed. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate stands in neither of these categories and is yet a wonderful, little read that tugs at your heartstrings and just makes you want to curl up in a ball and stay that way. This is a very profound, deeply moving, heart-touching and lyrical story in the garb of a children's novel that should be read by everyone at least once.

Story: The story of ‘The One and Only Ivan’ revolves around a free-spirited gorilla named Ivan who lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan, who has been living in a cage (or domain as he likes to call it) at the mall for 27 years, has a penchant for painting. However, it’s only much later in the story that he gets to truly explore the artist in him and with it also discovers himself.

Ivan has the company of Stella the wise, elderly elephant who always guides him and Bob, a mutt who prefers to call himself as "a dog of uncertain heritage" who he spends most of his time with to while away his days. Then there is Julia, the kind daughter of a sweeper at the mall who is a loyal companion to Ivan.

Ivan’s life changes when he meets Ruby, a baby elephant who has been taken away from her parents. Ruby’s innocence, effervescence, and unending curiosity opens Ivan up from his mundane existence and thus begins a fascinating journey of loyalty, friendship and self-discovery. Saying anything more would give away some great plot elements. But how Ivan finally discovers his true self is truly unique, uplifting and heartwarming.

What I liked about the book: 

As a child, I was always fascinated with zoos and I would often think how it would be to be confined inside those cages alone. Katherine Applegate does a wonderful job of portraying Ivan’s loneliness and how he spends his time hauled up inside his cage by engaging himself with myriad activities.

“In my domain, I have a tire swing, a baseball, a tiny plastic pool filled with dirty water, and even an old TV.”

“They seem to find it odd, the sight of a gorilla staring at a tiny human in a box.”

Narrated entirely in first-person, it must also have been very difficult for the author to convey a gorilla’s thoughts in words. But she does so brilliantly well. Ivan’s thoughts are shown in small sentences which, at times, are also lyrical in nature and have a lot of meaning.

“Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”

“I never remember my dreams, although sometimes I awake with my fists clenched and my heart hammering.”

“A jungle scene is painted on my domain walls. A waterfall without water and flowers without scent and trees without roots.”

There are two specific parts that I really loved about the book.

One was Ivan’s relationship with Julia, the sweeper’s little daughter. Julia encourages Ivan to draw and has a great rapport with him all through. She genuinely cares for Ivan and goes out of her way to connect with him and ensure that he never feels lonely. She represents those humans who, unlike most, treat animals kindly and with empathy.

Another part I loved was Ivan’s memories of his past: his childhood in the forest and his relationship with his sister. I can’t give away much as they would spoil a very poignant part of the story, but Ivan’s memories of his childhood really really moved me.

The most significant part of the story, of course, is Ivan’s love for art. It is his love for drawing that keeps Ivan going on in his mundane existence and it is this very love that helps Ivan rediscover himself and gives his life new meaning. One needs to commend the author for bringing out this passion of Ivan's so beautifully. Whenever Ivan talks about art and drawing, they are like beautiful little pearls on a string.

“But even though I draw the same things over and over again, I never get bored with my art. When I'm drawing, that's all I think about. I don't think about where I am, about yesterday or tomorrow. I just move my crayon across the paper.”

In conclusion:

Ivan’s story is inspired by a true story of twin apes captured in Africa and transported to the United States. The real Ivan stayed in a cage almost all his life alone until he was moved to Zoo Atlanta in 1994.

This is a very short book and the prose is comprised of short sentences. However, there are is a lot of metaphors and subtexts in these sentences that have some profound meanings. Applegate paints some delightful pictures in our mind and invokes some strong sentiments through her words as we go along Ivan's journey. And although the story has some dark and heartbreaking moments to it, it has enough quirks in it to appeal to the young audience as well as adults.

There is a lot you can take away from ‘The One and Only Ivan’: especially some serious issues regarding the treatment meted out to animals that children should know about. But what I liked most about the story were its themes of friendship and loyalty and of freedom, hope, and self-discovery. These are elements that we can all do with in our lives, isn't it?
Give ‘The One and Only Ivan’ a chance. It is an original, off-beat and captivating story that will draw you into its world bit by bit. By the end of its 200-odd pages, you will be in love with the journey of this silverback gorilla and will be cheering for his triumph through and through.

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