Elephants, moms, and memories

UnknownAfter starting Jodi Picoult’s novel, “Leaving Time,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. A reference to an elephant named Mary being tried and hanged for murder in 1916 in Tennessee led me to look it up to see if this really happened. Sadly, it did, and it haunted me.

I was drawn in by the story, though, and couldn’t resist a tale that included a stumbling, self-doubting psychic. So I forged ahead.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna is a solitary soul who reminded me a little of Tatum O’Neal’s character in the movie, “Paper Moon.” Jenna’s mother, Alice, was an elephant researcher with a particular passion for studying how elephants grieve. Her brilliant, mentally ill father, Thomas, ran the New England elephant sanctuary where they lived and worked.

The novel hinges on what happened, or may have happened, on a night when Jenna was  three and Alice disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As a young teen, she’s busy working the missing-persons sites on the Internet and poring over her mother’s old journals, longing for the mother she both remembers and never knew. On the fringes of her life are her grandmother, with whom she lives, and her father, who now calls a psychiatric hospital home. Jenna finally hires jaded private investigator Virgil, who worked on her mother’s case when he was a police officer; and disgraced former celebrity psychic Serenity.

A precocious child, a boozy ex-cop, and a psychic with a past. Cue the cute music, right? The three form an uneasy, unlikely alliance as they try to piece together what happened that night, what led up to it, and who might know. Another sanctuary worker, Nevvie, died — accidentally trampled by an elephant, so the police report said — the night Alice disappeared. Was Alice responsible for Nevvie’s death, or did Alice herself die at the hands of her increasingly unstable husband?

The hardest question is the one Jenna has to face: If her mother is alive, why did she leave Jenna behind? As Virgil and Serenity draw closer to the answer, they increasingly want to protect her from it. Until Jenna takes the case back into her own hands and hops a bus for Tennessee.

And that’s just the humans. The elephants themselves, one named Maura in particular, have their own bonds and losses. Elephants are exemplary mothers; mother and baby elephants are part of a complex social structure. When Maura’s calf dies, Alice — both as a scientist studying elephant grief and as a steward and friend of the elephants — stays with her as they all process what has happened.

Grief is an experience of all creatures great and small. I had two peppered corydoras catfish in my aquarium, and when one died, the other stayed by his body for several hours.

Back to the book. The story resolved in a way I probably should have picked up on earlier — but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. You may find yourself, as I did, going back and reading earlier scenes.

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