Buzzed Books #74 by Drew Barth
Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing
There aren’t that many books I’ve read that include exploding elephants. There are even fewer books that include exploding elephants that have an emotional impact that hits with the force of an exploding elephant. And yet here we are. The elephant in question is an elephant we may be familiar with: Topsy, famous for her public electrocution in 1903. And this is where Bolander sets her alternate history, time-jumping, perspective-switching novella. There’s a lot to take in here in just a short amount of pages.
We as readers are given eighty-four pages and are witness to the Radium Girls, the after effects of the radium on one of the narrators, another woman in the present grappling with the morality of glow-in-the-dark elephants, and passages from the perspective of captured elephants. A more precarious balancing act I’ve yet to read. And yet we’re given to a deftness of pacing and structural skill that knows when to let a moment linger just long enough before switching perspectives and letting us grip the page in glorious tension. The building of momentum as we switch from an elephant’s perspective to the past and into the present gives the novella a weight and balance. To have all three narratives shown chronologically robs the stories of momentum. We understand the ethical quandaries of glow-in-the-dark elephants as a result of radium poisoned elephants a few paragraphs prior. It’s this back-and-fourth structure that gives readers the tools to fully build the story in their mind’s eye.
Give me time, and I’ll give you close to eighty-four pages on how precise and expressive Bolander’s prose is throughout this novella. A line like,
the ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle”
makes me clutch my own jaw for the phantom pain conjured. It is all to perfect effect, pointing the reader toward the pain of Regan, our lens into the festered suffering of the Radium Girls. Each narrator has a voice that is distinct and precise. From a few words, we immediately know which character we’re following. It is prose and character voice done exquisite.
Alternate history stories are a literary blind spot to me. I’d viewed them as simply “what if someone else won the war?” fantasies and not much else. But The Only Harmless Great Thing does something different here. It doesn’t imagine a new world under different war circumstances or different global politics. It gives us a new look at characters and cultural icons. We never got Disney’s Dumbo here, we got Disney’s Topsy. We have elephants utilizing sign language to testify against their treatment by US Radium. It’s small, but significant. And that’s what makes the story so intriguing. It’s the same history, but with a couple things switched around. It never once shies away from the suffering during this timeline either. It is gruesome and crushing, but necessary.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.