The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018) is a lyrical, often moving, and sometimes searing novella that sets itself in an alternate reality that entangles two historical events: the public electrocution of Topsy the elephant at Coney Island in 1903 and the “Radium Girls” scandal in the early 1900s. That the two events were not simultaneous as in the novella is only part of the “alternate” part of this alternate reality. More central to the plot is the fact that elephants in this world are sentient.
The plot itself, which has two time strands, is relatively simple. In the early strand, Regan, a young radium girl already dying from the radiation she’s been exposed to in her job painting watch dials, trains a young elephant, Topsy, to replace her, both of them knowing what the end result will be. Topsy was picked up cheap thanks to being considered dangerous after she killed a handler. The other strand takes place nearly a century later and involves a scientist, Kat, trying to negotiate with an elephant matriarch. Kat is trying to solve the real-world problem of how to warn future generations away from buried nuclear waste. Her solution is to use genetic manipulation to make some elephants, and their descendants, glow via bio-luminescence as living warning signs, since as Kat explains:
When people think of elephants they think of radiation. They think of Topsy and all of that stuff, you know? It’s a story. People remember stories. They hand them down. We have no way of knowing if that’ll be the case in a hundred thousand years, but it’s as good a starting point as any, right?
The structure is more complex than the plot. Along with the two basic story strands, we also have the various pieces of an elephant myth (appropriately of how their people gained all their stories/memories), a sort of resistance song about Topsy, and some newspaper pieces scattered throughout the main stories, which themselves are told through several voices: Regan’s, Kat’s, Topsy’s. For the most part, transitions are fluid, though now and then it can be a bit dislocating. I think though, since one of the themes is storytelling, the plethora of stories/voices does a nice job of emphasizing that theme and so is worth a little potential (momentary) confusion.
Thematic richness is certainly one of The Only Harmless Great Thing’s strengths. Along with the power of story, Bolander also weaves in environmental stewardship (or the lack thereof), women’s and animal rights (or the lack thereof), and generally the treatment of those lacking power by those in power. In particular, the poor treatment of workers by corporations, embodied both by Regan and her poisoning by/subsequent interaction with the company, and then the employment of the elephants to take the humans’ place. Or as one of Regan’s co-workers writes: “It is knot right the way they done us, and it is knot right ever the way big rich men do little people.”
This workers’ right theme is nicely mirrored in the way workers’ solidarity is embodied in the shared memory/herd perspective of the elephants’ culture (this is especially, movingly invoked in the sharply poignant close). I also like, intentional or not, the way one can flip the “Big” men doing “little” people by virtue of the elephants’ size advantage over humans (an physical mismatch made graphically clear more than once), implying it would seem that the “little people” i.e. the workers, have more strength than is assumed, and watch out when they realize that and act on it.
Bolander’s style is varied, often poetic, and highly allusive/metaphorical, an aspect one sees right from the opening line — “There is a secret buried beneath the mountain’s gray skin” — an image which of course calls up the look of an elephant. And she does a nice job differentiating the elephants’ voice from humanity’s, creating a more rhythmic, formal, almost ritualistic kind of style.
There are times where I found myself wishing Bolander had been more selective in her use of metaphor/simile, where they seemed to pile one upon the other so that they became distracting rather than enhancing. And that note quoted above felt like another misstep stylistically, trying too hard (implausibly and possibly insultingly so) to present the girl as nearly illiterate.
But those were minor complaints compared to the stimulating structure, strong stylistic touches, thematic depth. And if the first part of The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t quite as moving as I might have expected, Bolander makes up for it with a truly killer ending. Recommended.
[I’d be remiss, by the way, not to point you to Radium Girls by Kate Moore, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the past few years and thus one I cannot recommend strongly enough.]
I deeply love The Only Harmless Great Thing. The fictional overlapping of the very real stories of the radium girls and Topsy the elephant is made into so much more than the sum of its parts by the way Bolander weaves it into a speculative past by showing us the future it could have built. The Only Harmless Great Thing is a beautiful, heartbreaking, deeply re-readable story full of all the things Bolander does gorgeously: thoughtfulness, stark imagery, and rage.
I’ll have to read this one.
I think writers take a step wrong when they try to show a character is illiterate by making them chose a more complicated spelling of word rather than the simpler, or the wrong word. To me, I can’t see the logic of “knot,” except for how it looks in the sentence. It adds a degree of meta-fictional complexity (it’s a *knot*) but it doesn’t seem to fit with someone who maybe only got a 3rd grade education. Just my two cents– or two sense– worth.
I agree, Marion. If an author is trying to show illiteracy or a lack of education, it makes more sense if a character writes “would of” instead of “would have,” for example, because that’s a really common mistake. But over-complicating a word unnecessarily doesn’t always come across the right way.
Also: I definitely want to read this one, especially knowing what I do about the radium girls and Topsy.