The Mourning Parade
By Dawn Reno Langley
Amberjack (July 17, 2017)
Reviewed by Carolyn Burns Bass
Perhaps I should begin with a disclaimer. Dawn Reno Langley is a friend of mine and we are critique partners for each other’s work. I read her latest novel, The Mourning Parade, long before anyone else, and in several forms—most recently the audiobook performed by Tavia Gilbert.
Dawn and I had been exchanging pages of our novels for some time when she took a vacation to Thailand and came back exploding with a new story. She set aside the novel she had been working on and plunged into a new book about a woman who retreats to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary after losing her two sons in a school shooting.
Novels can take years to write and edit into something an author is willing to share. The Mourning Parade took only months. While also working full time, Dawn poured herself into the story, researching the mahout culture of elephant handlers in Southeast Asia; pachyderm physiology, anatomy and medicine; post-traumatic stress disorder in humans and animals, and the political climate of Thailand. Soon all of Dawn’s copious notes mingled with the core of story and cast of characters that became The Mourning Parade.
Here’s what you’ll read about The Mourning Parade in the publisher’s blurb:
Natalie DeAngelo lost everything the day her two young sons were killed in a school shooting. Desperate to find relief from her unspeakable loss, she volunteers as a veterinarian on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, but soon realizes she may be in over her head. Battling the memories that torment her day and night, Natalie must find a way to heal an angry, injured elephant named Sophie. Through love, acceptance, and gentle care, Natalie and Sophie heal together, finding new ways to enjoy life again.
This is what you learn when you read The Mourning Parade:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) isn’t only a wartime condition and it doesn’t occur only in humans. One year after the death of her sons in the school shooting, Natalie DeAngelo’s suffering is beyond grief. Divorced from the absent, narcissistic father of her boys, Natalie has been everything to them and them to her. It’s not only their loss that afflicts her though, it’s the experience of their deaths. She gathered at the gates of the school under siege, she heard the shots, the screams, the frantic cries of the other parents. When the last shot is fired, the campus is unlocked, the kids flood out the gates, Natalie is the only parent who has lost not one, but two children.
After being diagnosed by her psychiatrist with PTSD, Natalie writes her own prescription for healing away from the bitter memories of the tragedy. With her family home sold, her veterinary practice turned over to an interim doctor, she heads to Thailand to volunteer her services at an elephant sanctuary. Still reeling from the chilly reception by the sanctuary’s staff veterinarian who will play nemesis to her recovery, Natalie encounters Sophie, an elephant with an attitude. Herein begins the soul-stirring descant of Sophie’s emotional pain running parallel to Natalie’s pain. As Sophie learns to trust humans again through Natalie’s care, Natalie begins to release the agony of her loss and accept the possibility of a genial future without her sons.
Key to Natalie’s work with Sophie is understanding the significance of the mahout in Southeast Asian culture. A mahout is always male. His relationship with his elephant is like a marriage, in most cases for life. They use an ancient language to command their elephants, along with the ankus— a metal hook and pointed prod. Natalie pairs with a young mahout who overcomes his reluctance against female mahouts and teaches her the vocal and physical gestures of command. Natalie shocks him further in refusing to use the ankus, having observed Sophie’s negative reactions whenever an ankus is in view. Instead, Natalie begins rigorous training using protected contact, gentle gestures, and food rewards. The other mahouts of the sanctuary are astonished with Sophie’s response, but none are willing to change the way of their ancestors.
Sophie’s progress isn’t celebrated by all. Dr. Peter Hatcher, the staff veterinarian has been resentful of Natalie’s appearance at the sanctuary for reasons of his own. Seeing only a rogue elephant who responds to a sole person as a recipe for disaster, Hatcher recommends euthanasia for the unstable elephant. Hatcher’s professional opinion is conflicted nicely against his personal animus, thereby avoiding an overused vendetta trope less experienced writers might have fallen into.
When an international film crew arrive at the sanctuary to document Sophie’s improvements, Natalie is challenged to acknowledge a yearning she’d long buried by motherhood, work, and then grief. While Sophie steals the hearts of the film crew, Natalie’s heart begins to beat again.
All of these elements come together in layers of story told in sumptuous prose. Not a scene is out of place, the pace is swift, the revelation of Natalie’s losses devastating. Just as Natalie begins to see through the haze that has been her life for the last two years, fate blows in a new cloud that threatens to undermine her recovery and send her reeling back to zero.
The Mourning Parade may have been published by a small press, but it’s a big book.
Dawn Reno Langley is the author of seven novels, including The Mourning Parade and is fast at work on her next novel. She received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from The Union Institute and University. Both programs gave her the creative freedom she desired, and she has maintained a lifelong interest in journals, the topic she studied for her dissertation, as well as her master’s thesis. She lectures about the various ways to keep a journal and still maintains at least six journals for different purposes, and has published a line of “The Writer’s Hand” journals which are available on her website.
Follow Dawn Reno Langley on Twitter: @proflangley.