I know I once saw Ivan the gorilla at the B&I shopping mall on South Tacoma Way. My mother used to love to shop for art supplies at the sister store near that funky little mall and we went inside the bigger mall for relief after what seemed like hours of tedious waiting on mom’s browsing.
I can’t fully remember seeing him. My sister remembers clearly as she often does, but I only remember a deep sadness in looking at his ‘domain.’ I never did like to see critters in cages, and I felt guilty he was stuck in there. I thought I should do something though I don’t know what my 9 year old self could have done to change his world.
As I started to read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. I checked online to see that the ending would be good. Since it is, I pressed on. The writing is spare and poetic as I imagine Ivan would be if he could narrate a story. Applegate uses white space to break up brief paragraphs or lines of dialog. She has small headers in italics that give hints of what each scene will be about.
I fell in love with all of Ivan’s fictional friends from the janitor’s daughter to the baby elephant who arrives after the book begins. I felt their sadness at leaving each other even though they got a measure of freedom by going to a zoo.
In the book, Ivan has a need to use art to express himself. He uses these words to describe an incident with cake and a refrigerator door during his time living in a home with the mall owner:
“The frosting wasn’t as easy to work with as jungle mud. It was stickier and, of course, more tempting to eat.”
I also appreciated that the mall owner was not a total villain. Mack is complex enough that I felt I understood him even though he keeps Ivan in a cage for 27 years.
Animal stories are often difficult for me in the same way that working at an animal shelter pushed me to breaking. It’s not the animals who wound me but rather what happens when humans and animals connect. For all that we love them and adore going to zoos to see them, we also hurt them in ways intentional and unintentional.
Not too long ago, I went to the B&I again with my sons. They ran around and looked at the toys, rode the aging carousel, and took in the knick knacks at the various booths. Ivan was no where in sight. His absence was good for him and good for all of us humans, too.
The One and Only Ivan does an excellent job of telling a story that hurts and yet finds ways to redeem. I think Katherine Applegate did the best we could do for Ivan the gorilla. She gave him a voice and let him play a part in his own fate — at least in fiction.
To those who helped Ivan leave to find a home with other gorillas, I am also very grateful. I’m glad they also did the best we could do for Ivan. As Stella the elephant said: “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”
And if you’d like to see the Ivan from my blurred memories, you can find photos of the real one and only Ivan here: