A telepathic gorilla and precocious young girl become unlikely friends. My Ishmael is the story of the relationship between Julie Gerchack and her teacher Ishmael. Ishmael is a sentient gorilla with telepathic powers and a deep knowledge of human history and culture. He retains students via a newspaper ad which targets people who "want to change the world." 12-year old Julie responds to the ad, showing up at the Fairfield Building, room 105 -- for her initial interview.
When she finds a large gorilla sitting calmly in the middle of the room Julie is surprised but not deterred. She closely observes the gorilla. After a few minutes, Julie realizes that she can communicate with the gorilla. They seem to have a telepathic bond. Ishmael explains to Julie that her youth makes ineligible. Julie argues with him fervently, demonstrating her keen intelligence and relentless determination in the process. Ishmael agrees to proceed with his teachings.
In their first meeting together, Ishmael and Julie discuss what exactly it might mean to "save the world." He asks her a series of questions concerning why she chose to answer the ad, and what she believes he is going to teach her. Julie shares her aspirations: to see less violence in the world, to free herself from the stranglehold of her own traumatic family situation, and to learn about other cultures (perhaps even extraterrestrial or alien cultures).
Ishmael shares with her a number of stories and parables explaining the nature of human culture. In particular, he introduces the idea of "takers" (totalitarian agriculturalist cultures that deplete all resources in a non-sustainable way), and "leavers" (nomadic cultures or farming cultures whose agriculture is sustainable rather than totalitarian). The contrast between takers and leaders becomes a central theme within their pedagogical dynamic.
After several weeks of study, Julie meets Ishmael's friend Arty Owens. Ishmael informs Julie of his intention to return to his homeland. Ishmael's place of origin is located within a newly independent nation-state of Mablii, a region formerly part of Zaire. In order to get there, he has to travel through the state of Zaire, which is currently a quite hostile territory. If he isn't careful, Ishmael will be captured and imprisoned within a zoo or laboratory.
As their time together comes to an end, Julie begins to feel an obligation to share Ishmael's teachings on a larger scale. She writes a book reflecting on what she's learned. Arty tells her not to publish the book until the corrupt dictator of Zaire falls. Should word of his specific teachings reach the Zaire head of state, Ishmael may be targeted as an enemy of the state.
Arty and Julie work together to ensure Ishmael to safe passage through Zaire. Julie presents herself as leader and representative of Ishmael's vast following. She tells public officials that Ishmael essentially has celebrity status among American students, and convinces them that it would be unwise to harm or imprison the creature. Ishmael is released safely into the wild, reunited with his own clan and family. Years later, after the corrupt dictator of Zaire falls, Julie publishes her book. The reader learns that her book is the book he is now reading.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the dialogue between the two main characters: very sharp and insightful.
Best scene in story:
Ishmael doesn't want to take Julie on as a student. He feels she's too young to comprehend such complex and abstract themes as sustainability, cultural identity, and cultural history. In a tense telepathic argument, Julie debates with the aged gorilla fiercely. Ishmael is forced to confront his own stereotypes of age and gender. In forcing Ishmael to question some of his own cherished assumptions, Julie establishes herself as a worthy student.
Opinion about the main character:
Julie is much more aware of her smarts than most young precocious literary characters. She carries this knowledge with some smugness. She's a bit egotistical, but it's not alienating. On the contrary, her preteen egotism makes her character fun, lighthearted and likable.