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One hundred years ago, on a stormy starless night in the African rainforest, a gorilla is born. The elders prophesise that the ape’s life will be filled with many misfortunes. Normally, I’d be sceptical about prophecies, but these gorilla elders must have had some divine source for their prediction. On the next page, the baby gorilla’s joyous childhood is cut short when her troop is ambushed. Kidnapped and smuggled, swaddled like a human baby, she is given a false passport and the name Sally Jones.
This is how The Legend of Sally Jones begins. The graphic novel is a prequel to, Finnish author and illustrator Jakob Wegelius’s critically acclaimed children’s novel, The Murderer’s Ape, a book that I have yet to read; though, I don’t think this impeded on my enjoyment of the story. In fact, The Legend of Sally Jones was actually released before The Murderer’s Ape in Sweden, so there isn’t a recommended reading order for the two books. There are just two different stages at which you can jump in.
In The Legend of Sally Jones, we see Sally being dragged through constant cruel endeavours. Originally used as an engagement present, she assumes numerous roles including thief, magician’s assistant, and weaver of flirtatious letters. Her fate paints a bleak view of animal treatment, reminding me of ignorant zoo-goers who don’t understand why captive animals look so bored and depressed. Captured in a zoo, Sally behaves aggressively because her only friend, Baba, is moved away from her. The zookeepers say she has gone crazy and she’s sold to a circus where she fails to fulfil the promised role of a mad ape:
‘But the public was dissatisfied: not even the smallest child was afraid of Sally Jones and people felt they had been tricked by the publicity. She didn’t look in the least bit wild and bloodthirsty—in fact, she just looked dreadfully sad.’
Those who have read The Murderer’s Ape will have insight as to what is going to happen to Sally, but for me, the tension of wondering if she was ever going to be happy was always present. Sally makes several attempts to break free from her captors. Frequently, the ape manages to outwit humans and there were several moments when I found myself grinning, watching as Sally manages to pull off something ingenious such as stealing a truck to use in a prison break. She is one of the most heroic apes I’ve come across in any story, and that’s including The Planet of the Ape’s Caesar.
The humans of Wegelius’s novel definitely deserve to be fooled. They are generally painted as selfish and there is a strong anti-colonial message that runs throughout the story. The British, Dutch, and Belgians, each of them rich white men, show up in various countries, each time exploiting the land, locals, and animals. Belgian colonists capture Sally at the beginning of the story, and later, Kaspar Meyer, a Dutch scientist, takes all his rich aunt’s money, squandering it on a foolish jungle expedition that leads him to bankruptcy.
The only human who treats Sally like a person is a Finnish engineer, Koskela. He stops the captain of his ship from throwing Sally overboard and takes her on as a worker in the engine room. The relationship between the two characters grows and leads to some touching moments, allowing the first true flickers of hope to enter Sally’s bleak tale. Koskela is probably a projection of Wegelius (both are Scandinavian) and I think the character is a way for the author to enter the story, rescuing a maltreated animal he cares deeply about.
Koskela is Sally’s solace because he recognises her intelligence, allowing her to fit into a world she was forced to enter.
However, one question that lingers throughout the novel is if Sally will ever be able to return to where she was taken from.
Sally’s first attempt to live in a jungle ends badly, and we’re left wondering is if she’s doomed to be stuck in a land where she might never truly belong.
The book’s illustrations lend to the story. Unlike other graphic novels, most pages are taken up by only one panel, which gives the art more space to breath. Wegelius uses this space to emphasise to characters’ faces, capturing emotions and personalities in their features and expressions. Throughout the story, we become so familiar with Sally’s dejected eyes that the moments where she smiles take on an extra importance.
There are other clever details used throughout that add a vintage aesthetic of the novel, reminding us that the story takes place one hundred years ago. The novel’s panels are often given ornate or unusual frames, making them look like paintings or tarot cards. The portrait of a magician is surrounded by gold adorned with a club, spade, heart, and diamond, and a picture of a grave is framed by curving lilies.
I think there are moments where the illustrations outshine the comparatively plain accompanying text, but mostly they come together to create this touching story. The constant lure of Sally’s potential happiness is a powerful incentive to keep reading. It is brief. I breezed easily through the story in two short sittings. However, in writing this review, I’ve found myself flicking through the book, pausing on certain pictures, noticing details I hadn’t originally. I think this is a book children and adults will want to return to. Sally Jones’s tale is pretty legendary.
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