Applegate has crafted a warm-hearted story about Ivan, a kind gorilla, and his caged friends at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. It is narrated from Ivan's perspective, and the simple, well-spaced sentences, grouped under episodic themes, convey a literary voice that forms a perfect mental picture of how you might imagine a gorilla's thoughts to run.
As an emotive story it is acutely effective. As well as identifying us with Ivan's own perspective, his thoughts have a gently melancholic tone that beg our sympathy.
"Some animals live privately, unwatched, but that is not my life. My life is flashing lights and pointing fingers and uninvited visitors." (19)
"Mostly I think about what is, not what could be. I've learned not to get my hopes up." (24)
"He looks lonely," they say." (25)
In this poignantly simple tone, the harsh treatment of animals resounds all the more.
"We were clinging to our mother, my sister and I, when the humans killed her. They shot my father next. Then they chopped off their hands, their feet, their heads.
There is a cluttered, musty store near my cage. They sell an ashtray there. It is made from the hand of a gorilla." (143-144)
Humans themselves are divided into two categories: there are good humans (who are kind to animals) and there are bad humans (who are cruel to animals).
"Bad humans killed my family, and bad humans sent me here. But that day in the hole, it was humans who saved me." Ruby leans her head on Stella's shoulder. "Those humans were good." (92)
As an animal story it is a worthy tale; the reader can't help but side with these poor, exploited characters who long for a better home with more space, more wildlife and a kinder master. Except the story doesn't stop there. A not so subtle message comes through that not only do animals deserve better than this, they are in fact hardly different from humans at all. This develops further into the message that animals are people too.
"I'm mightier than any human, 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." (12)
(i.e. Humans are no more different from gorillas than gorillas are different from chimps.)
"I walk to the glass that separates us. I put my hand where Julia's is, palm to palm, finger to finger. My hand is bigger, but they're not so very different." (202)
"I live here because I am too much gorilla and not enough human." (13)
"Dad," Julia says, looking up from her homework. "You know what my favourite sign was?" "Hmm?" George asks. "Which one?" "The one that said 'Elephants Are People Too.'" (192)
Could there be serious consequences that need to be considered before feeding this message to children?
Clare Cannon is the editor of www.GoodReadingGuide.com and the manager of Portico Books in Sydney.
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