Fact and fiction collide in "The Only Harmless Great Thing"
The stranger-than-fiction story of the women who painted radium dials during World War I got a proper exploration earlier this year in the nonfiction hit "The Radium Girls." Now the topic gets its due in the realm of fiction with Brooke Bolander’s "The Only Harmless Great Thing," with an intriguing twist.
As if the story of the radium factories were not already peculiar—and tragic—enough, Bolander imagines sentient elephants working alongside the women of history.
For those who aren't quotation buffs, here's the explanation for the enigmatic title. “Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing,” said John Donne, an English poet of the fifteenth century.
Though such a premise could simply be stamped as fantasy or perhaps science fiction, it feels more like magical realism in this treatment. The alternative history approach changes nothing here apart from the capacity of elephants to communicate with humans. There are no spells being cast or otherworldly technology at play; Bolander preserves the gritty, realistic fabric of history (with her own tusked amendment, of course).
"The Only Harmless Great Thing"’s narrative cycles through three different times and settings as distantly-related stories unfold. In the present day, we follow Kat, a scientist roped into diplomacy negotiations with sovereign elephants, in hopes that they will help designate the danger of radioactive sites even after mankind might perish. Then, in the 1910’s, Reagan, a radium girl, works with Topsy — an elephant, and a fiery one at that — both suffering the effects of radiation poisoning and ruthless working conditions. Finally, Bolander adds the what is essentially a telling of the elephant’s creation myth; it is the story of their first matriarch, who overthrew the bull elephants long ago.
Despite jumping around so drastically in focus, reading the novel feels like a well-tuned stream of consciousness. Bolander has a knack for creating a resonance that spans all the different protagonists while preserving each of their unique identities. She takes on quite the challenge, too, by writing in a modern voice, a rural 1910’s voice and an elephant voice that is fairly experimental and closer to poetry than prose. I’ll admit, the elephant sections aren’t the easiest to read at first, but they’re vivid, thoughtfully constructed and well worth it.
Tracing the elephants’ relationship with mankind — along with mankind’s relationship with radioactive substances — makes for compelling and effortless storytelling. Really, the premise is just too good. The radium girls already make for a fascinating topic, and adding elephants somehow feels perfectly appropriate. Every character feels real, and it’s the best kind of emotional devastation when we witness their increasingly-grim plights.
There are plenty of social critiques and insights that could be drawn from the book. Bolander, though, presents her story at face value, allowing the reader to derive any further meaning as they please, be it a message relating to the treatment of animals, feminism, labor rights, the military industrial complex et al.
Put it all together, and "The Only Harmless Great Thing" is a unique and satisfying read if you want to start the year off with a change of pace. John Donne may have been on to something: There is just something about elephants, isn’t there?
— Eli Hoelscher is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.