Pages 1-31 Summary
Ivan is a gorilla.
He is sometimes called "the Freeway Gorilla...The Ape at Exit 8...The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback."
Ivan can understand human words, which is not the same as understanding humans. He was able to achieve this skill because he is patient, unlike humans.
"how i look"
Ivan used to be a wild gorilla. He strikes a majestic figure, "four hundred pounds of pure power." His back is adorned with "a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback."
"the exit 8 big top mall and video arcade"
Ivan lives in a human habitat called the "Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade," located on I-95, the main north and south highway on the United States' East Coast. At the Mall there is a carousel, and circus shows at two, four, and seven daily. Stella, an elephant, lives in the domain next to Ivan's. She and Bob, a dog, are Ivan's best friends.
Ivan's domain is surrounded by three glass walls, and a fourth, which is made of cement, and sports a jungle scene. At the bottom corner of one of the glass walls is a small hole, made by Ivan with a baseball bat when he was six. From his domain, Ivan can see a giant sign at the edge of the freeway. On the sign is a picture of Mack, the boss at the Mall, dressed in his clown clothes. Stella, standing on her hind legs, is also depicted, as is a fierce, angry creature who is supposed to be Ivan. Ivan thinks the picture is inaccurate, because he is never angry. Silverback gorillas use anger "to maintain order and warn [their] troops of danger," but in Ivan's domain, there is no one to protect.
"the littlest big top on earth"
Everyday, the denizens of the Big Top Mall perform a show called "The Littlest Big Top on Earth." Mack, dressed as a clown, pedals a tiny bike, and Stella parades along with a dog named Snickers on her back. After the show, the humans who have come to watch "forage" through the gift shop for things like balloons, T-shirts, and caps.
Ivan does not do any tricks.
Humans just come to look at Ivan, leaving their fingerprints on his glass walls. Every night a "weary man" comes to wipe the prints away.
(The entire section is 924 words.)
Pages 32-59 Summary
Business at the Big Top Mall has been bad lately, and Mack is perturbed. Ivan thinks that if he could learn some new tricks, it might help the situation. Ivan knows that humans enjoy watching him eat; he resolves to eat more so that visitors will come and Mack will be happy again.
Bob tells Ivan that the lack of visitors at the Big Top Mall has nothing to do with the gorilla's appetite.
Bob is a stray; "he does not have a permanent address." He is "tiny, wiry, and fast," and he prides himself that he can live by his own wits. Bob and his siblings were tossed onto a freeway when they were but a few weeks old. Only Bob survived.
Bob slips into Ivan's domain through the hole in the glass wall. He likes to sleep on the big gorilla's belly, and Ivan treasures the comfort of his warmth and company.
Ivan wonders why Bob does not want a real home. Bob replies, "Everywhere is my home." He relishes being wild and untamed.
Mack brings Ivan a yellow crayon and ten pieces of paper, muttering, "Time to earn your keep, Picasso." Ivan does not know who Picasso is, but he knows what to do with the materials. Scanning his domain for something yellow, he spies a banana, and draws it. To Mack, it is just a scribble, but it will suffice. Ivan makes ten pictures of bananas.
Three singularly disagreeable visitors come to the Big Top. A boy spits at Ivan's window, and a girl throws pebbles at him. Ivan is glad that the glass is there.
"my visitors return"
The visitors return later; they mock the gorilla and throw more pebbles at him. Ivan throws a "me-ball" at them; now he wishes that the glass was not there.
Ivan is sorry for the way he acted toward the children.
Julia is a child, but she is not like the rude visitor children. She comes to sit by Ivan's domain every night while her father, the "weary man" named George, cleans the mall. Julia's mother used to come also, to help George with his work, but now she is sick, and does not come anymore. Julia offers to help her father, but George always insists that she work on her homework instead. Sometimes Julia reads her...
(The entire section is 914 words.)
Pages 60-89 Summary
Change is in the air: a new resident is coming to the Big Top Mall.
Stella says the new animal will be a baby elephant. Even though Ivan hears nothing, Stella can hear the creature crying for her mother.
Though her foot is angry, red, and swollen, Stella does not rest, but instead tells Ivan and Bob a story while they await the new visitor. It is about Jambo, a silverback gorilla who lives at a zoo. Stella explains that a good zoo is a large, safe place with humans "who don't hurt."
One day, a young boy visitor falls into Jambo's domain. Keeping his troops a respectful distance away, the silverback goes over to the motionless child and strokes him gently to see if he is all right. The humans watching are terrified, certain that the gorilla will crush the boy, but Jambo retreats respectfully so that rescuers can retrieve him. The boy is not hurt.
Ivan wonders why the humans in Stella's story assumed that Jambo would hurt the boy.
Bob asks why Ivan and Stella are not in a zoo, which sounds so much nicer than the cramped and seedy Big Top Mall. Smiling sadly, Stella answers, "Just lucky, I guess."
That afternoon, a big truck delivers a baby elephant, just as Stella predicted. Mack, certain that the new addition, Ruby, will improve business, is jubilant. Ruby, however, is terrified, and will not come out of the truck. Mack becomes impatient, angering Stella, who knows what a dreary, stifling life awaits the newcomer.
Stella's help is enlisted to calm Ruby and bring her into the elephant domain. While the noble animal, limping painfully, complies, Mack brags that Ruby had been shipped from Africa only a short time before, by the struggling circus which had sold her to him. When Ruby briefly balks at entering the domain, Mack approaches, menacingly brandishing a broom. Stella protectively steps between him and the baby, and gently nudges Ruby forward.
As Bob so tactlessly notes, Ivan is now "old news." Everyone is enamored by the new addition to the Mall, and Ivan is jealous. Even Julia is fascinated by the baby elephant, and commences to draw her. Julia quickly perceives that Ivan feels...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
Pages 90-120 Summary
Ruby wakes up early, and does not want to wake Stella, because she knows the big elephant's foot has been hurting her. Like any child, however, Ruby is bored, so Ivan tells her elephant jokes and draws her some pictures. Ruby is completely impressed with Ivan's artistic ability, and laughs a "happy, lilting...elephant laugh" that delights the gorilla. When Stella awakens, Ruby tells a joke of her own; it is a good one, and Stella strokes the little elephant tenderly.
Stella has never had babies of her own, but Ivan tells her she would have been a good mother. This pleases Stella, but she is not sure that Ivan is right. Stella says that the hardest part of being a parent is keeping one's babies safe from harm. Looking around at the iron bars that define the elephant domain, Stella expresses doubt that she would have been able to fill the role of protector very well.
"the parking lot"
Mack notes happily that the parking lot is uncharacteristically full; business has picked up since the acquisition of Ruby. Looking out at the big sign on the highway, Ivan has to admit that the picture of Ruby, with its little red hat and curly tail, is "rather cute." Ivan wishes that Mack would add a red hat and a curly tail to his picture as well, so that visitors would be more inclined to stop by and see him too.
Ruby is bored again that afternoon, and decides to tell "a real live true" story. She recalls a time, back in her natural home, when she fell into a big hole full of water, and was rescued by a village full of kind humans. Bob is incredulous; he does not believe that humans would do such an uncharacteristically nice thing, but Stella says that they are "an unpredictable species," and "can surprise you sometimes." Bob is unconvinced, but Ruby concurs, pointing out that though bad humans killed her family and sent her to the Big Top Mall, good humans saved her when she fell into the hole.
Stella's foot is getting worse and worse, and soon she cannot come out for the shows. Ruby must stand before the crowds alone, and the people love her. Ivan does not know whether to be happy or sad about this.
That evening, Stella lies in a pile of dirty hay, breathing raggedly. Julia...
(The entire section is 647 words.)
Pages 121-147 Summary
"once upon a time"
Ruby grieves all night, and though Ivan wants to comfort her, he does not know how. The little elephant asks him to tell a story about when he was young, but he has a singularly hard time recalling the past. Hearing Ruby's heart-breaking sobs as she tries to sleep, however, spurs Ivan to put forth uncommon effort into remembering. He slowly realizes that he has a story after all, and begins it with the words, "Once upon a time there was a gorilla named Ivan."
Ivan was born in central Africa. He had a twin sister named Tag, who loved to chase him around the rain forest. Ivan and Tag would run and jump onto their "unsuspecting father," and gleefully bounce on his belly, until he gave the "Grunt," which meant "Enough!"
Ivan was an artist from the time he was a child. He used sap, juice from fruit, and, most frequently, mud to draw his pictures. That is how he got his original name: "Mud."
Ivan's family, or troop, consisted of ten members: his father, mother, three other adult females, a "juvenile male," two other young gorillas, and the babies, Tag and Mud. Ivan's father, the silverback, was a wonderful guide and protector.
"a perfect life"
Like baby elephants, young gorillas at first cling to their mothers, but after awhile, they begin to venture forth to learn the skills they will need as adults. In his early days, Ivan lived an idyllic childhood, playing and learning in the serene environs of the rain forest.
Then, the humans came.
Ivan and Tag were captured and taken away in a "cramped, dark crate." Ivan sensed that in order to survive, he would have to let go of the vine that metaphorically tied him to his old life. Tag was unable to break the connection, so she died.
"the temporary human"
It was Mack who bought Ivan, and raised him for awhile like a human baby. The young gorilla wore diapers, and had the run of the house, just like a human child would. On the weekend, Mack and his wife Helen would take Ivan to fast-food restaurants, baseball games, or the grocery store. Although, to Helen's dismay, the little gorilla frequently got into mischief and broke things in the...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
Pages 148-179 Summary
"a new beginning"
Mack does not come around for two days, and when he returns, he says nothing about Stella. Instead, in a surprisingly upbeat manner, he declares it is time for "a new beginning." Mack loops Ruby's feet with rope, and attaches a heavy chain to her neck; he is anxious to teach her some new tricks to bring in more customers. Mack works with Ruby all afternoon and into the evening, until finally, exhausted, the baby elephant stops, and refuses to move.
George, who by that time has arrived with Julia for his clean-up duties, suggests that Mack should call it a day, but the boss is determined. He stomps off to his office and returns carrying a long stick with a "gleaming hook" at the end. At the sight of the hated "claw-stick," Ivan and Bob growl and Julia cries out, "No!" but, nonetheless, Mack swings the cruel instrument a few inches above Ruby's head, "to get her attention." When the boss draws the claw-stick back a second time, Ruby flings her trunk at him, slapping him hard, "somewhere below his stomach." Mack falls to the ground, howling in pain.
When Mack finally rises and stumbles to his office, George and Julia lead Ruby to her domain and give her food and fresh water. Julia wonders if Mack would ever really hurt Ruby, and George replies, "I hope not." George wishes he could ensure the little elephant's safety, but he does not know how, and besides, he needs his job. In thinking about the look on the boss' face when Ruby hit him, George says, "Poor Mack," but as he walks away, Ivan hears him chuckling.
While her father works, Julia begins to paint a picture of Ruby with watercolors. After awhile, she stops to examine her work, and, dissatisfied, she gives it to Ivan through the hole in his glass wall, jokingly commenting that it will "be worth millions someday." Julia also passes the gorilla three jars of finger paints and some paper, and shows him how to make a print. Ivan takes a glob of paint and slaps it with his whole hand onto a piece of paper. To his amazement, the result is a handprint that "can't...be wiped away."
"a bad dream"
That night, Ruby has nightmares and wakes up screaming. Ivan tries to comfort her, and she becomes calm again, but is unable to go back to sleep. Ruby asks Ivan to tell her another story, but he cannot think of...
(The entire section is 897 words.)
Pages 180-208 Summary
Ruby continues her training each day, endlessly plodding around the ring, "going nowhere." A few more visitors come to the Big Top, but not enough, and Mack threatens to feed the animals less, to save money. Ivan continues to paint, but although he has an idea in his head about what he wants to express, he cannot seem to get it right. He begins to believe that his plan is "stupid."
One day, Mack discovers one of Ivan's hidden paintings. The boss is impressed with the work, and estimates that it will go for "thirty...maybe even forty" dollars at the gift shop. Turning Ivan's TV on to a Western, Mack tells the gorilla that if the painting sells quickly, he will get him more paint with which to dabble. As the boss walks away, Ivan wishes he could be like the sheriff on TV so that he could get rid of all the "bad guys."
Ivan has been storing his pictures under his plastic pool of dirty water, but now, he looks for a better hiding place. He thinks perhaps he should put them inside Not-Tag, the stuffed toy gorilla given to him by Julia. The Western on TV comes to an end, and is followed by a series of ads. The last one depicts a human family enjoying a day at the zoo, and when he sees the grassy, tree-filled habitat that houses the elephants, Ivan knows exactly what his picture should look like.
For the first time, instead of trying to reproduce what he sees before him, Ivan is painting what he envisions in his head.
Ivan pulls out Not-Tag's stuffing and replaces it with his paintings, hiding them so that Mack will not take them to sell. When Julia arrives, she notices that Ivan has used up all the paints and paper she gave him, and calls him "one serious artist."
"one more thing"
The painting Mack took from Ivan sells for "forty dollars with frame." Delighted, the boss brings the gorilla a stack of paper and buckets of paint, and orders him to "get to work." Ivan paints for Mack during the day, and for Ruby at night.
One night, Ivan places the pieces of his puzzle on the floor of his cage. Bob is impressed. He can tell it is a zoo, with Ruby and other elephants in it. Ivan, however, is not satisfied. He insists that his painting needs just "one more...
(The entire section is 906 words.)
Pages 209-237 Summary
After a long time, Ivan grows quiet. Julia knows that something must be really wrong for the gorilla to act this way, but she does not know what it is. As she and George retrieve the scattered pieces of Ivan's puzzle, Julia suddenly freezes. Arranging a few of the pages with her artist's eye, she discovers first an "H" and then an "E."
Julia is beginning to get the idea that Ivan's individual paintings are part of a giant picture. In addition to the letters, she discerns an eye, and a tree. Ivan is gratified and hopeful, but a little dismayed as well. The process of interpreting his message is taking a lot longer than he thought it would.
Julia and George take all of Ivan's pictures into the ring, where they doggedly attempt to put them in some kind of order. Ivan, Ruby, and Bob look on, as an hour passes. Finally, Julia jumps up in triumph; she has found the word "HOME," and recognizes the baby elephant and the zoo in the background. As Julia studies Ivan's picture, his purpose slowly dawns on her: the pieces were meant to be on a billboard.
It takes a good bit of persuading on Julia's part to convince her father to help her glue the pieces of Ivan's picture up on the highway billboard. George is not sure what good the action will do, and knows that if he participates, he will likely lose his job. Julia argues, reasons, and begs, and, most convincingly, brings out the claw-stick and quietly asks, "what if Ruby ends up like Stella?" The feisty child prevails, and George agrees to help her display Ivan's work on the billboard.
"the next morning"
Mack is at first speechless when he sees the billboard in the morning.
He then goes into a rage, throwing and smashing things around the Big Top Mall.
In the middle of his tantrum, Mack receives a call from a man from the local paper. Julia has notified the paper that the new artwork on the highway billboard was created by a gorilla, and the man would like to come by and take the artist's picture. Taking credit for the whole idea himself, the boss invites him to come see Ivan "in action." When the man from the paper arrives, Mack asks him to take his picture too, with his arm draped congenially around Ruby's back.
(The entire section is 819 words.)
Pages 238-271 Summary
The lady in the white coat leads Ruby to the box, and each time the elephant touches it, she makes a clicking sound with a metal instrument and gives her a piece of carrot. Later, Ruby asks Ivan why she did that, and the gorilla responds, "I think [the lady] wants you to go inside." Ivan explains that the box is Ruby's "way out" of the Big Top Mall; the picture on it indicates that it belongs to a zoo. To Ivan's surprise, Ruby is not excited by the prospect of being taken to a better place; she just wants to stay with him, Bob, and Julia. Ruby says the Big Top is her home, but Ivan disagrees, reminding her that it is "[her] prison."
"poking and prodding"
The next time the lady comes, she brings a veterinarian, who examines Ruby, "poking and prodding." The doctor then enters Ivan's cage, but the gorilla protests with "a nice, loud chest beat." The veterinarian concludes that they will have to "put this one under." Ivan does not know what that means, but he feels quite victorious.
Ivan is not asked to paint anymore, and Ruby does not have to perform. There are no more shows or visitors at the Big Top.
More boxes are brought into the Mall, and one of them, a large metal one, is Ivan-sized. Bob concludes that the humans will be taking all the animals living on the premises to other locations, and he explains this to Ivan with a bright voice but sad eyes. As a stray, Bob will be left behind, and Ivan suddenly understands why Ruby does not want to leave.
That night, George and Julia come to say good-bye to Ivan and Ruby. Julia is worried about what will happen to Bob, and asks her father if the dog can live with them. Sorrowfully, George, who has been fired by Mack, replies that without a job, he cannot take on an extra mouth to feed. Before she leaves, Julia slips a piece of paper into Ivan's cage. It is a drawing of Ivan and Ruby, with new companions at the zoo. In the picture, Ivan is smiling.
The lady from the zoo is trying to get Ivan to move from his cage to the box, utilizing the same system of clicks and rewards that she has been trying with Ruby. Fully aware that Ruby is watching closely to see what he will do, and knowing also that the box is "the way out,"...
(The entire section is 914 words.)
Pages 272-300 Summary
Ivan watches the gorilla family every day from his window. He observes the way they live—playing, grooming, and sleeping. The gorilla family stares back at him, and Ivan wonders if he is as fascinating to them as they are to him.
One of the females, Kinyani, attracts Ivan's attention. She is terrifying and beautiful.
The humans lead Ivan to a door that will allow him to join the other gorillas, but he is not ready. He will try again tomorrow.
Ivan thinks about Ruby, and wonders if she has already walked through a door similar to the one that awaits him. Remembering her spunkiness and curiosity, he concludes that if she were in his position, she would have been through the door by now.
When Maya asks if he would like to try again, Ivan decides that it is time.
"outside at last"
Ivan experiences a new world—"Sky. Grass. . . . Wind. Flower. Rock."—and it is all his.
Ivan approaches the other gorillas tentatively, but they do not welcome him. Kinyani chases him, testing him to see if he is a true silverback. Cornered, Ivan cowers, and Maya lets him back into his cage for now.
"what it was like"
That night, Ivan struggles to remember what it was like to be a real gorilla, not one that was raised as a human.
When the juvenile male in the gorilla family hungrily eyes his food, Ivan swaggers and beats his chest threateningly. Kinyani and the others watch as the young male retreats. Ivan has done a pretty good job of pretending to be a mighty silverback.
Ivan is making a nest on the ground, but the other gorillas disapprove, as it is not up to standard. When Ivan climbs into it, however, he finds it to be satisfactory, "like floating on treetop mist."
Maya lures Ivan back into his cage, where he finds that the TV is on. When he hears a shrill sound "like a toy trumpet," the gorilla rushes over to the screen and sees—Ruby! He watches as his friend frolics with two other young elephants, then stands, trunks intertwined, with a large...
(The entire section is 871 words.)