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The Righteousness of Truth: Brooke Bolander’s Only Harmless Great Thing

Before Joe started doodling and I started typing up reviews, I had a dream: I was singing softly, quietly, to myself as I worked, yet my voice echoed and was amplified and the gentle tune was heard near and far and, like animals disturbed by the footfall of a traveler in the woods, people’s heads perked up and took notice, if only for a moment. 

If you listen, you’ll hear the story of “We.” The story passed down from generation to generation, through people strong and cunning enough to make sure they get the stories of the past, to steal them from those who twist the truth. 

But no one cares about the truth, at least not humans. If they did, the cruelty and hurt, and all the things that tear us apart would end. We’d know that something from mother, to mother, to mother is passed down and sustains us, but separated and shackled and weeded out, we become weak. 

Bolander’s Only Harmless Great Thing is about elephants, specifically the tragically true story of Topsy, and their long memories. About the truth of the stories passed down since woolly mammoths roamed the earth. Able to communicate through signs as primates, Bolander’s sentient pachyderms are needed by humans, not just as entertainment, but as a cultural icon that can be used and manipulated and celebrated. The scientists are going to make them glow. 

Imagine negotiating with a species, (or indigenous people) about their unconditional surrender and subjugation, to be willfully drowned in a suffocating, toxic culture. And they look you in the eyes and say fine. “But the truth will be known.”

Bolander, not for the first time, makes me want to be a better writer. Told in breathless sentences reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Gas Pump”, there is a dark secret at the heart of this novel. If you listen in a still place, you’ll hear its melody of truth like an echo, a wave washing over you.

You will be moved.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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