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 About six months ago, the Random House book rep for our area dropped off a galley (a reader’s copy of an as yet unpublished book) with a note that she had loved it, and hoped I would, too.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.
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.
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.
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?