Leaving Time: A Family Mystery with Elephants

I read many, many books over the course of a year—usually more than 100.  Most are enjoyable on some level; some are a waste of time; and a precious handful are the ones I recommend to customers at the bookstore where I work, give as gifts, and put on my forever favorites list.  Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult certainly falls in the latter category.  About six months ago, the Random House book rep for our area dropped off a galley (a reader’s copy of an as yet unpublished book) with a note that she had loved it, and hoped I would, too.  Two days later, the jury was in—a winner, for sure. 

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

Now, Jodi Picoult is not a new, unknown author—quite the opposite.  She has been writing engrossing novels on topical issues for years and has legions of enthusiastic fans, as was evidenced by the packed auditorium at a recent book signing at the Atlanta History Center.  Picoult is an engaging, articulate woman who laughs easily and has a cascade of wonderfully curly red hair.

She began her remarks by saying that the idea for the novel came to her while she was sitting in her dentist’s office, reading an article about how mother and daughter elephants stay together until they die.  And, since Picoult’s third child (a daughter) was about to leave for college, the germ of an idea began to form.  She started doing research on elephants, first at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, then in Botswana at the Tuli Block conservation site.  If there is one thing you can count on with a book by Jodi Picoult, it’s that her research is impeccable, and Leaving Time is no exception.  

Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world and are distinguished by their “voices,” tusks, and ears (researchers mostly tell them apart by the ears).  There are two to ten females in a group, and the elephant babies are raised by all, but males, after age 13 or live in small male clusters.  The elephant families refuse to leave any injured of sick members behind, and their relationships last for a lifetime.  They have elaborate grief rituals and will mourn over bones of deceased family that they come across in their travels.  Elephants are pretty wonderful creatures, and the reason I’m giving you a tiny view into elephant behavior is that they are an integral part of the novel’s storyline.  If you don’t love them now, you surely will when you finish the book.

A Mother's Love (wildography.com.uk)

A Mother’s Love (wildography.com.uk)

Jenna Metcalf, the novel’s thirteen year old protagonist, is the daughter of Thomas, owner of the fictional New England Elephant Sanctuary in New Hampshire, and Alice, a scientist whose life work was studying grief among elephants.  Alice disappeared one night, ten years earlier, following a terrible accident at the sanctuary, and Jenna never saw her mother again.   Her father, severely traumatized, has been institutionalized in a psychiatric facility all these years, and Jenna has been living with her grandmother. 

Jenna cannot understand how someone who is so in tune with the grief of elephants could possibly abandon her own infant daughter, so she decides to solve the mystery by poring over the many journals and notes her mother left behind and by hiring a local, pink-haired, former celebrity psychic, Serenity Jones.  Add to this mix an ex-cop named Virgil, who originally investigated Alice’s disappearance, but who has long since become an alcoholic.  The story is told in the voices of these four characters, Alice’s from her notes, of course.  Jenna says:

All I have left of my mother is her research.  I pore over her journals, because I know one day the words will rearrange themselves on a page and point me toward her…my hunch is this:  She would never have left me behind, not willingly.  If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to prove it. 

Interspersed with Jenna’s story of the search for her mother are Alice’s lifelong notes emphasizing the comparison between  and parallels of human and elephant behavior.  Although grief was the main focus of her study, she also related many incidents of trauma and stress, for example when herds were threatened by poachers, hunters or predators.  Each herd of elephants is a big family, and when something goes wrong, its individual members gather round and support those in need.  I like to think Serenity and Virgil have done that with Jenna, forming a circle of friendship and strengthening her resolve.  Babies are raised by “allomothering” or all the females in the herd—it benefits the whole group, as it allows young cows to learn how to parent with older “aunts” helping out with protection and guidance.  Although the calf may have many mothers, the bond between mother and calf is incredibly strong and will last until they die. Because Jenna is painfully aware of this phenomenon, she feels robbed by her mother’s apparent abandonment and continues to grieve.   

It is well known that elephants, coming across the bones of another elephant, even if it’s been dead for a very long time, will stop and caress the bones and feel all over with their trunks, paying respect to the departed animal, just as humans would at a funeral.  The specific behaviors may be different, but the psychology is much the same.  I love this quote of Thomas, Jenna’s father, before he became ill, in dealing with the anguish of loss:

I think grief is like a really ugly couch.  It never goes away.  You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room—but eventually, you learn to live with it.  

And that truly sums it up—grieving may be similar in humans and other animals, but, in the end, we carry it with us, in some form, forever.  Leaving-Time-Jodi-Picoult

The ending of Leaving Time is a real humdinger, and the author has asked everyone who reads it to please allow each reader to discover it for him/herself.   

Through her evocative writing, Picoult manages to draw us into the very real plight of elephants worldwide.  I would be remiss in not conveying to you the importance of learning about the tragic decimation of elephants everywhere—please investigate, read, and lend your support to animal rights organizations that are endeavoring to stop the killing and mutilations of these magnificent animals.  Once gone, they will never come back.  


Have you ever visited an animal sanctuary?  What was your experience?









14 thoughts on “Leaving Time: A Family Mystery with Elephants

  1. I have never been to a true sanctuary as you describe here. Of course, I’ve been to zoos–sad places, in my opinion. Sadder, though, are places like the so-called sanctuary (to remain nameless here) east of Atlanta that says its animals are mostly rescues. Fine, great, but they’re housed in small pens with nothing to do all day but sleep, eat, and poop. The dilemma, though, is what to do with them if they’re too damaged to live in the wild.

    • So what’s the answer, do you suppose? I hate to see animals caged,
      but I have a zoo friend that says it’s important for the general public
      to SEE them to be aware of their world-wide plights and to help in
      some way. At any rate, I’m happy that some of these older elephants
      are able to live out their days in relative peace, in a place where they
      can roam to their hearts’ content and having others with which to

  2. I’ve only seen exotic animals in zoos, but my husband went to sanctuaries in Namibia when he was visiting his brother. He has a great story of a farmer who has a cheetah sanctuary. Its started when he couldn’t kill some of the cheetahs (who were eating his livestock, naturally). The family ended up taking in some of the cubs and nurturing them. I don’t remember how many cheetahs live there now, but apparently they have really rough tongues and purr like chainsaws.

  3. Thanks, Susan, for the Christmas gift suggestion! I remember seeing a special on PBS about two elephants who joined trunks to lift a just-born baby who was took weak to stand. They persevered until the baby could manage on its own. How wonderful is the world of animals, and how little we know or understand about this world.

  4. Based on your review I will rec this title to my book club at January selection meeting. Eager to read it, even if not chosen by club. I’ve visited an exotic animal sanctuary in Indiana (Black Pines) that rescues animals from misguided pet owners who think they can imprison gorgeous creatures like bengal tigers. I’ve written a couple of posts about it at backyardspectator.com (shameless plug for my nature blog 🙂 http://backyardspectator.blogspot.com/2014/06/bengal-stare.html

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