Elephants shouldn’t glow. Humans shouldn’t be careless with radioactive waste.
But good writers should tell good stories, and that brings us to Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing.
This tells the story of a woman and an elephant. The way the book is written may make the book slightly less appealing to readers, and this is a pity; it’s an excellent book and readers, especially those who like alternate history, should give it a chance.
There is a sense of tragedy on every page, and of the great unfairness of the world. But there is also hope and through it all, Bolander’s prose really shines.
I realize that this is a somewhat rambling review of a book but it is hard to review a book that is essentially without plot. That doesn’t mean that nothing happens, though, only that the book is hard to describe without giving too much away. Here’s the description on TOR’s page:
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
Bolander manages to pull this off; a short, plotless book that makes you care about elephants and feel rage at the world at the end. THe true events the book is based on are hard to believe, the elephant Topsy, electrocuted at Coney island in 1903.
Born in Southeast Asia around 1875, Topsy was secretly brought into the United States soon thereafter and added to the herd of performing elephants at the Forepaugh Circus, who fraudulently advertised her as the first elephant born in America. During her 25 years at Forepaugh, Topsy gained a reputation as a “bad” elephant and, after killing a spectator in 1902, was sold to Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. When Sea Lion was leased out at the end of the 1902 season and redeveloped into Luna Park, Topsy was involved in several well-publicized incidents, attributed to the actions of either her drunken handler or the park’s new publicity-hungry owners, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy.
On January 4, 1903, in front of a small crowd of invited reporters and guests Topsy was fed poison, electrocuted, and strangled, the electrocution ultimately killing her.
I hope I’ve done the book justice. It’s excellent, one of the best things I’ve read all year. You’ll see when you…buy the book.