Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski is a sixth grade teacher, but she has not taught for the past ten years. This is her first year back in the classroom, and it is her job to select four of her students to be part of an academic team. The first three chapters of this novel, The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg, are dedicated to introducing us to each one of the students Mrs. Olinski has chosen for the sixth-grade Academic Team at Epiphany Middle School in upstate New York. These four students call themselves "The Souls."
In chapter one we meet Noah Gershom, a resourceful and talented young man who has spent too much time with his grandparents in their retirement community. He has a generous heart, and his giving inspires others to give, as well.
In chapter two we meet Nadia Diamondstein, quiet people-watcher who rarely speaks, at least at the beginning of the year. Through her parents, Nadia is connected to both Noah and Ethan. Almost everything that happens in her life is arranged for her, and because of that she feels as if she has very little control over her own life. She learns to have more compassion as she and her father eventually work together to save baby turtles during a storm.
In chapter three we meet both Ethan Potter and Julian Singh. Ethan is a real loner, in part because his older brother, Luke, is
always doing something wonderful and/or record setting.
Julian is cruelly and immaturely tormented by his schoolmates because he is Indian. The two boys form a fragile and rather quirky friendship.
The Souls has been assembled by chapter four of the novel, and we learn why Mrs. Olinski has not taught for the past ten years. She was the victim of a car accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. Of course she is apprehensive about facing a group of young children who have the capacity to be cruel and unkind to people who are different--which is perfectly evidenced by how they treat the four kids.
On the day they decide to call themselves The Souls, Julian determines that the group has to have a project to work on together. This is where the ivory monkey comes into the story. Julian has a small ivory monkey which was given to him by Gopal, a wise old friend of his. The little figurine can do tricks and
can balance on any one of its four limbs.
Julian uses the ivory monkey as a metaphor to explain to his new friends that it must be their job to help their teacher "stand on [her] own two feet." While she cannot literally stand, of course, she can stand up against the rude and unkind students in her class who are taking advantage of her apparent weakness. These troublemakers are, in effect, getting her "off balance," and Julian says it must be their job to help their paraplegic teacher regain her metaphorical balance in the face of this adversity.
The Souls agree to support Mrs. Olinksi, though they understand that this is likely to be a significant "balancing act."
The ivory monkey, then, is symbolic of being grounded and balanced in the face of adversity and loss.