September 25, 2018

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read several realllly long books recently, so I decided to take a break. I wanted something short and sweet, and simple (or at least simpler). Of course, in pursuit of this, I chose a novella with a multi-layered storyline, meditations on the sentience of elephants, beautiful and brutal language, and a gut-punch of an ending that left me muttering, "There's dust in your eyes. There isn't dust in my eyes."

The elephant Topsy really existed, and was really electrocuted for murdering her human tormentor. There were really Radium Girls, young women poisoned by an uncaring corporation, given cancer by their using radium paint for watch faces. Brooke Bolander combines both these historical facts into a unique narrative of fury and hope, pain and rage and triumph. In this three-pronged alternate history, elephants are sentient beings communicating with humans via sign language, with their own culture, history and oral traditions. The relating of one of the elephant Stories is one of the most interesting parts of the narrative, because it speaks to the stories humans tell ourselves, to understand the darkest parts of our nature.

(One hopes, in this alternate history, Topsy and Regan, the Radium Girl who accompanies her on her last walk, become one of the Stories told by future generations of elephants.)

This isn't a nice story, but even in its bleakness it is a triumphant one. The characters are saying, "If we have to die, you will know we were here, and you will by God [and Furmother, in the elephant's Story] remember us." As legacies go, that's not a bad one. And this is a damn good little book. Read it.

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The Phantom said...

Selective history, Bonnie. Radium used to be sold as a -medicine- by reputable doctors of the time. Nobody knew radioactivity was bad for you until later.

Bonnie McDaniel said...

Okay, and? That doesn't change the fact that the girls weren't told the paint was dangerous. From this article (

But the girls didn't embrace this technique blindly. "The first thing they asked was (whether) the paint was harmful, but the managers said it was safe, which was the obvious answer for a manager of a company whose very existence depended on radium paint."

In any case, you do realize this is a fictional alternate history, don't you? (I mean, the fact that we don't talk to elephants via sign language, as this story's protagonist does, might be a tipoff.) Brooke Bolander took the story of Topsy and the story of the Radium Girls and combined and tweaked them to create this lovely tale. I don't know why you felt it necessary to complain to me about this.