Why and how we ( and elephants) remember and forget
Jodi Picoult studies the idea of memory, in elephants and people, in Leaving Time
You know the saying: Elephants never forget. That saying forms the basis for this novel, and Picoult has clearly done her research.
Jodi Picoult is a powerhouse writer — she has written 22 novels, many of them New York Times No. 1 bestsellers and blockbuster movies.
She tackles important issues — babies born to save their siblings from leukemia, the challenges of parenting a child with autism, the link between bullying and school shootings — from a human perspective. Most of the time, she tells the story from several perspectives using different voices to develop her characters.
This time around, she is writing about elephants from the perspective of a scientific researcher who is studying elephant memory and grief. You know the saying: Elephants never forget. That saying forms the basis for this novel, and Picoult has clearly done her research. Elephants are fascinating creatures and Picoult captures their uniqueness and exceptionality from the first page of Leaving Time.
But this book has another theme — also based on memory and grief — but focused on human beings. It’s the theme of a mother’s love and how it is timeless and enduring, reaching through space and over time. It’s something elephant and human mothers share — an infinite love between mothers and their babies.
Leaving Time begins with a tragedy. Jenna, a threeyear- old girl, lives at an elephant sanctuary in New England with her mother Alice, her father Thomas, and three other adults. One night, one of the adults is killed, trampled by an elephant, and Alice is also injured, found unconscious nearby. Alice is taken to the hospital, but disappears the next morning. Thomas is so traumatized by the events he is institutionalized, never to recover. Jenna moves in with her grandmother, who tries her best to look after her, but who can never replace her mother.
At 13, Jenna decides to take matters into her own hands and try to find her mother. First stop, a visit to a psychic named Serenity. Picoult makes it clear right up front that Serenity’s psychic ability is real — she was able to see and talk to dead people until the day she told her spirit guides to go away and they did. She would do anything to get her gift back, but for now, it has deserted her.
Jenna’s second stop is with Virgil Stanhope, the detective originally assigned to investigate the events at the sanctuary. He has seen better days — he’s now working as a private detective who is barely holding it together — but her reluctantly agrees to help Jenna try to find her mother. Jenna, Serenity and Virgil make an unlikely threesome, but off they go, determined to find Alice, who has not been seen or heard from since she left the hospital 10 years before.
Like many Picoult novels, Leaving Time isn’t exactly what readers expect. It is great storytelling — there is love, passion, rage, mental illness, timelessness, death. It’s all there and Picoult weaves it all together with fascinating research about elephants and their lives.
The novel is loaded with elephant facts, such as their pregnancies last 22 months, the females live together with the children, while the males live apart, they make sounds appropriate to different situations, they play, they mourn. Picoult addresses the risks to elephants as well, including poaching and the abuse they can suffer in captivity. In the author’s note, she writes that during the writing of the book there were many times when she thought that elephants could be even more evolved than humans.
“( W) hen I studied their grieving habits, and their mothering skills, and their memories. If you take anything away from this novel, I hope it is an awareness of the cognitive and emotional intelligence of these beautiful animals — and the understanding that it is up to all of us to protect them.”
While the New England elephant sanctuary is not based on real place, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is real and is the setting for a small part of this story. Readers who want to learn more about these wondrous creatures can visit the sanctuary’s website ( complete with webcams) at www. elephants. com.
But even for readers who are not that into elephants, there is much here to be enjoyed. Picoult explores elephant memory, but this novel is also an exploration of memory in its entirety — what we remember, why we remember it and why we forget. It’s an exploration of love and emotion that won’t soon be forgotten.