The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
"Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant
(The only harmless great thing), the giant
Of beasts, who thought none had to make him wise..."
from The Elephant by John Donne
Brooke Bolander's new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, is a devastating, gut-wrenching, alt-history narrative, utilizing a shift in timelines to join together two different tragedies of early 20th Century America, which also adds a speculative twist on the sentience of a great and noble animal. I would be remiss if I didn't state up front that trigger warnings are necessary, both for the story and this review, due to scenes of animal cruelty, and a general lack of human decency on the part of several characters.
In 1917, the United States Radium Corporation began operations in their Orange, New Jersey plant, producing luminous watch and clock dials. Due to the labor shortage during World War I, young women were hired to paint the dials, using a mixture of radium powder, gum arabic, and water. The women were told the substance was harmless, and in order to not waste time or material, rather than clean brushes with rags, they were instructed to 'point' their brushes with their lips between applications. All of the women later died horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. That happened, it's not just a fabrication for a macabre horror story. Now, imagine if you will, after the majority of the women had been shipped off to hospitals, or home to their families, or buried in Potter's Fields, the company hatched another scheme to continue their operations. They had become aware of a group of elephants at a local circus, whose trainers had discovered could communicate through sign language using their trunks. Enter Topsy the Elephant.
The real Topsy performed for the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus for 25 years, but gained a reputation for belligerence, and in May 1902, killed a spectator that had taunted her and burned her trunk with a cigar. Another killing occurred the following month, and Topsy was sold to Coney Island's Sea Lion Park, later renamed Luna Park. On January 4, 1903, after several other incidents, Topsy was executed by a combination of poison, strangulation, and electrocution. This is another true story, chronicled not only in newspaper and magazine accounts, but also immortalized on film by the Edison Movie Company. Bolander has shifted Topsy's story forward by a decade and a half, adding the elements of animal sentience and communication skills, to place Topsy and other elephants as 'employees' of U.S. Radium, taking over the painting duties from the women. They retained one woman, Regan, sick but not in debilitating condition, to train the elephants in manipulating brushes with their trunks.
That's a fairly straight forward description of a story that is written in anything but a straight forward fashion. Bolander weaves together several different viewpoints and timelines, some of which are a bit confusing. One is from Topsy's perspective, and at times I felt it was her musings on her past, the racial memory of her African origins. Some of it might have been her communications with her fellow elephants. Toward the end I thought it might be the dawning awareness of her impending fate. Interspersed between those segments were scenes of Regan recounting what had happened to her friends, documenting her own deteriorating condition, along with her arguments with management and Topsy's trainer. When Topsy kills her drunken trainer and is scheduled to be killed herself, a friend of Regan's helps her and Topsy get revenge on those who had wronged them. Another timeline was even more confusing. I think it was either present day, maybe near future, where another woman was trying to negotiate with other elephants to work in either a nuclear power plant, or possibly a nuclear materials disposal site. The story is just 96 pages, and I read it quickly in one sitting. It is relentlessly paced, exciting even when it is almost too horrific, and while I feel I should re-read at least certain parts, I'm not sure I'll be in the mood for a long time.
It is difficult to say how I can rate this highly, 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads, and yet hesitate to recommend it. The above descriptions will either frighten you away from it, or intrigue you enough to check it out. I honestly can't say what anyone else should do. It is a timely story, since there are still many people and corporations that care more about their profits than they do for the potential harm their products or manufacturing processes can have. Sadly, it will probably always be that way. Sadly, this story probably won't change that fact. At most, it will probably just anger those who already care. At times, art needs to be cruel to be effective. This story is effective, and it hurts.
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