Every once in a while you come across something that reminds you of forgotten memories from your childhood. The One and Only Ivan is one of those things. I grew up in Atlanta, and as a child I remember going to the Zoo. At that time one of the main attractions was Willie B., the resident western lowland gorilla. Just like Ivan, he lived alone in a concert cage with a TV. I clearly remembering thinking like one of the young boys in the story, "he must be the loneliest gorilla in the world." (p. 21) I am glad to say that I have since had many opportunities to take both my children to Zoo Atlanta and see both Willie B. and Ivan in a more natural habit. As Stella says, "A good zoo is how humans make amends." (p. 64)
Ivan is a silverback gorilla that is the main attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. To pass the time he has made several friends. Stella and aging elephant that came to the mall when she was injured during a circus stunt. Bob, a stray that managed to live through a night on the interstate, now lives off the leavings of humans. Times have changed and the mall is barely staying in business so Mack, the boss brings in a baby elephant to bring back the crowds. With the arrival of baby Ruby, Ivan realizes that his destiny is to protect his troop. This is the story of how Ivan comes back to life.
The plot of the story is fairly simple. Ivan and the other animals live at the Big Top Mall and their job is to bring in customers with their tricks. Ivan doesn't know any tricks so he spends his time eating, napping, throwing me-balls, watching TV and sometimes he draws. To pass the time, he asks Stella, the elephant, to tell him stories. Stella remembers every day of her life. All the sights, smells, the day she was captured, her life in the circus, and that humans can be bad and sometimes hey can surprise you. For some reason Ivan can't remember anything about his life before the mall. However times are changing and there are fewer and fewer people stopping by the mall. The arrival of a new star attraction, a baby elephant, stirs maternal feelings in both Stella and Ivan. When Stella realizes that she is at the end of her life due to a untreated injury, she asks Ivan to promise "to save" Ruby and allow her to have a different life than her own. This promise and the needs of a young offspring force Ivan to re-evaluate his life and create a plan to keep Ruby safe.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla, his life job is "to maintain order and warn his troop of danger, except here in my domain there is no one to protect." (p. 10) So in order to survive, he has forgotten his past life except the fact that he has always been an artist. Over time Ivan has pushed down his feelings and reactions. He feels nothing when the seal dies from eating pennies, he is concerned when Stella's leg pains her, but he does not allow himself to get angry. He says "mostly I think about what is, not what could be." Stella, the elephant, is the conscience of the book. She remembers life before she was captured and all of the injustices she has seen along the way. Ivan thinks of himself living in a domain; Stella reminds him that it is a cage and that "memories are precious, they help tell us who we are." (p. 53) The arrival of Ruby changes the dynamic of the Big Top Mall. Stella takes on a maternal role, but is disturbed that Ruby will suffer through the same life that she has endured. On her death bed she makes Ivan promise to get Ruby to safety. Trying to comfort Ruby forces Ivan to remember his own painful past and even the moment when he looked at his sister Tag and realized to survive he had to forget. This is a turning point in the story, Ivan now has someone to protect and he creates a plan to get Ruby to a zoo. With the help of the custodian's daughter and his new found ability to paint what's in his head, he attracts the communities attention in a new way. Public outcry against the living conditions at the Big Top Mall brings in experts that find new suitable homes for all the animals. Ivan receives a true domain with his own troop and Ruby joins the herd of her dreams.
Katherine Applegate used the structure of book to give you the feel that the story was being told by a gorilla. She uses short simple sentences to get across Ivan thoughts and feels. Early in the book he states "Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." (p. 2) The chapters are short and the headings are brief and clearly identify the topic. At the beginning of the story all of his comments are observation of the things around him with little depth. As he changes over the course of the book and he becomes the protector he was meant to be he begins to have deeper thoughts and he has to become angry. He realizes not only Ruby deserves a better life, so does he. His battle to save Ruby is also the battle to save himself. Her writing style makes you believe that you are reading a story written by a gorilla that is facing the universal struggle of good triumphing over evil.
The One and Only Ivan is a partially true story. There once was a western lowland gorilla named Ivan that lived in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. He and a meager group of animals lived in what we now consider inappropriate conditions and were the main attraction for the mall. In the mid 1980's the shopping mall went bankrupt and Ivan moved to the Atlanta Zoo where after twenty-seven years he was once again able to experience the outside and life with a family. Katherine Applegate has created a story that give Ivan a voice to his story.