Noble creatures in fiction and nonfiction
Jodi Picoult’s Ability to Blend Fact With Fiction
I can’t help myself. I love it when an author weaves scientific facts into the mental membranes of a fictional book. Jodi Picoult did it with Lone Wolf, a 2012 book I enjoyed because of the fascinating research on wolves and the contemporary plotlines revolving around fractured families and end-of-life issues. Mostly, I loved how much I learned about wolves and their behavior.
But if elephants are more your thing than wolves, have I got a find for you! Leaving Time, a Jodi Picoult novel released in October of 2014, is the story of Alice, a woman who has devoted her life to the study of elephants. In particular, she’s observed their responses to grief, their ability to remember, and their steadfast protection of the calves of the herd.
A compelling storyline drives Leaving Time. The novel’s primary narrator is a teenaged girl named Jenna, Alice’s daughter, who is searching for answers to what happened to her mother. Alice mysteriously disappeared after an accident at the elephant sanctuary when Jenna was three.
Jenna hires a private investigator and a discredited psychic to help her find the truth, and the plot involves Jenna’s quest to discover the truth about her mother’s death. It also incorporates the pain of having a father who has been in a psychiatric hospital for years and living with a grandmother who isn’t willing to talk about the past.
I’m a fan of books that don’t clearly fit into a genre, crossing over boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, mystery and romance, thriller and detective. Picoult mixes them all up in Leaving Time, leading up to a mind-blowing, memorable ending.
Most of all, the book offers insights into the loyal and noble behavior of elephant herds, most notably their ability to grieve the loss of one of their own.
Jodi Picoult’s Background
As a student at Princeton University, Picoult was impressed by Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” The best love story she’s ever read is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — because of its timelessness, and she’s a huge fan of Alice Hoffman.
Picoult has written twenty-five novels. Four of them have been made into films. Her novel, Small Great Things has also been optioned as a movie starring Viola Davis and Julia Roberts. To date, her work has been published in thirty-four languages in thirty-five countries.
Picoult is no stranger to acclaim. She was named as one of Princeton’s 25 Most Influential Living Alumni in October of 2017. She has won the Sara Josepha Hale Award in 2019, the New England Bookseller Award for Fiction, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Romance Writers of America.
“Picoult is a skilled wordsmith, and she beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us.” — Boston Globe
The Book of Two Ways, published by Penguin-Random House, is Picoult’s latest work. After a harrowing near-death experience, Dawn Edelstein looks back on her life and contemplates the choices she’s made, envisioning two completely different futures for herself.
The Elephant Company
I often talk about fiction, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate nonfiction. One of the best, most compelling nonfiction books I’ve read is The Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, by Vicki Constantine Croke, published in 2015 by Penguin-Random House.
What makes this book so fantastic is the emotional connection the reader develops between both “Elephant Bill” and the elephants he trains and protects. Set in the Burmese jungle (now Myanmar) during the Japanese occupation of World War II, “Elephant Bill’s” struggles to care for the elephants essential to the war effort is legendary. Lt. Col. James Howard Williams, a.k.a. “Elephant Bill” is a compassionate, intense individual doing the almost impossible job of protecting the animals from poaching, detusking, their own natural urges, and the horrific effects of war.
Lt. Col. Williams is an “elephant-whisperer.” Always a natural with animals, he learns everything he can about the huge creatures, and the stories that Croke pulls out of Williams’ diaries, private correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts are monumental tales of love and bravery between species.
Read this and weep for the flawed and fabulous human that loved elephants.
“…Croke paints a rich and intimate portrait of a fascinating man living in extraordinary circumstances, and the even more extraordinary people — and elephants — surrounding him.’ — Sara Gruen, NYT Review.
Vicki Croke’s Background
Croke is a champion of animals. She is a native of the Boston area and a wildlife author and journalist covering animal issues for National Public Radio.
In addition to The Elephant Company, Croke authored The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal. (I’ve read this one too, and it’s a fascinating, heart-wrenching story.) Croke has also written The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future.
Vicki Croke’s work has been critically acclaimed. She’s the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the winner of the PRNDI, the award presented by Public Radio News Directors.
A New Perspective
If you’ve ever thought that elephants were just big, brutish creatures to ride people around a circus ring, your perceptions will be forever changed.
Read either one — or both — of these amazing books, and you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the societal connections, the intelligence, and the bonding between elephants and the humans who love them.
If you love finding great reads, check out the book reviews in Book Talk.
Buy Leaving Time from Bookshop.org.
Buy The Elephant Company from Bookshop.org.