Book Review: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are some books which grab you with pace, some with situation, some with falling elephants (see under Terry Pratchett). Few do it with voice, and even fewer do it with the voice of a gorilla.
I’ve always found voice tricky to adequately explain. This may be because it is exactly what it sounds like. Just as you can recognize people by the sound of their voice, you can recognize a good writer or narrator by the tone, the feel, of their words. For this, if for no other reason, Katherine Applegate earned her Newbery Medal. Gorilla though he may be, within pages, there is no doubt that you are listening to a story told by Ivan (the one and only).
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, sharing this preposterous situation with an elephant or two, a stray dog named Bob, and a smattering of other animals. Where some people might expect a gorilla narrator to run something like “Me Ivan, you Jane,” Applegate’s primate is articulate and emotive and sounds for all the world like an ape raised by humans, which is exactly what he is. Ivan, I suppose, is the anti-Tarzan in that respect.
“I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.
I have a gorilla’s shy gaze, a gorilla’s sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla’s majestic shadow.
In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I’m thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine.
I’m mightier than any human form, four hundred pounds of pure power. My body looks made for battle. My arms, outstretched, span taller than the tallest human.
My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins.
I know this is troubling.
I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns.
Chimps. There’s no excuse for them.” (p. 4-5).
In passages like this, Applegate captures the peacefulness of a gorilla at rest, mixing in a humor that suits him well. There is a tension present, however, born of Ivan’s environment. At first, only the reader is aware of the dissonance, but gradually Ivan’s contentment is disturbed to the point of action. As he shakes off his lethargy, he attempts to grow into his hoary mantle and, to some extent, he succeeds. To really become a gorilla, though, and not just a sideshow attraction, will require a difficult cost.
The novel, with only momentary exception, is devoid of the bittersweet flavor which almost seems a requirement with an animal main character. The story doesn’t provide the happy-go-lucky conclusion you might wish for Ivan and company, but it is heartfelt and real and satisfying. Throughout, the book is artfully written, full of well-balanced character development, and sometimes downright hilarious. Don’t let the Newberry fool you; this one is well worth anyone’s time.
P.S. Don’t skip the “author’s note” at the end. It’ll blow your mind.