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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