Before Christmas, I had the opportunity to attend a special reading and discussion by Jodi Picoult of her novel Leaving Time. In the book, Jenna Metcalf searches for her mother, who disappeared after a terrible accident involving the death of a caretaker at an elephant preserve. She is convinced her mother is still alive and her search comes to a head when she enlists the help of a washed-out psychic and an alcoholic private investigator. Like many of her books, the characters are on a search for truth - what truly happened the night Alice Metcalf (the mother) disappeared, and why would she leave her daughter behind? In this particular story, the elephants come to represent the themes of memory and grief that thread through the tale.
As fascinating as the book is, and there's a twist that is one of the best I've come across (well done, Jodi!), the history and research Ms. Picoult completed for the book is just as intriguing. She visited elephant preserves in the US and Africa, spoke to researchers in their behavior, and collected stories about different beasts. As she noted in her discussion, the stories concerning the elephants are true, only the names were changed to protect the pachyderms. If you are moved by the stories of the incredible intelligence and severe danger these animals are experiencing, she lists a number of organizations accepting donations for their continued protection in an afterward.