The second sentence of The Only Harmless Great Thing calls humans “flat-faced pink squeakers with more clever-thinking than sense” (54). Things only get better from there. Humans are described as “piteous little creatures,” with “short memories and shorter tempers,” and as
“yowling monk[ies],” whose “noses were stumpy, ridiculous things” (64, 107, 64). The elephant consciousness that thinks these thoughts is spot on, both in the alternate-history world of the novel and in the actual world that we live in. Elephants surely have reason in today’s world to hate humans for isolating them in circuses, hunting them for their ivory, and destroying their habitat. I am reminded of Patricia Highsmith’s old short story “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance,” in which the titular elephant exacts revenge from years of ill-treatment at the hands of humans.
In The Only Harmless Great Thing, life is even worse for elephants. In one of the book’s three narrative threads, set in the early 20th-century, elephants have been forced to do the work of “radium girls,” painting with radioactive materials that give both humans and elephants cancer. In another narrative thread, set approximately 100-years later, humans conscript elephants to serve as sentries guarding nuclear waste in a desert wasteland. The other thread details an elephant creation story every bit as believable as any human-focused one. We learn of the sacrifice made by “Furmother-with-the-Cracked-Tusk” to bring memory and “Story” to into the world.
Bolander gives herself a lot of ground to cover in this novella; she makes an interesting decision right from the start that helps her to write in a concise and evocative series of perspectives. Unlike lots of scholarship that belabors the question of animal consciousness, Bolander presents the workings of elephant minds on the page as a given. Elephants think and communicate on the pages of this book in ways different from, and perhaps more sophisticated than, humans do. Readers are given direct access to elephant thoughts and perceptions. In these passages, vision is deemphasized in favor of smell, tactility, and memory. Elephant language has its own system of metaphors that reflect their lived experience. They hear a “voice like the earth split” (176); they conceptualize in terms of “high-branch mangoes” (133) an “bone-rooted ghosts” (294). What’s striking about this prose is not so much that it defamiliarizes the human perspective, but that it places the elephant perspective on equal footing. The Only Harmless Great Thing shows readers that different sentient species perceive and think about the world in different ways. A human clock, from an elephant’s perspective becomes ““the metal bird in the box” that shows how humans are “obsessed with the rising and setting of the sun” (259).
In addition to the well-wrought inner voice of elephants, Bolander also gives us human-elephant communication through a sort of sign language called “Proboscidian,” in which elephants gesture with their trunks and humans gesture with their hands and arms. Proboscidian overcomes the language barrier between species when an elephant signs “We feel” to a human translator. Think here of the gestural language between humans and chimpanzees in 2011’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but without any need for genetic mutation to develop communication skills. Elephants, as the creation story in The Only Harmless Great Thing tells us, have been thinking and communicating just as long as humans have.
And this taken-for-granted approach to elephant communication pays off in the novella’s character development. The main elephant characters—Topsy, and an unnamed matriarch—are as fully developed as their human counterparts—Regan and Kat. Topsy and Regan are both poisoned by radium, and they reach a point of empathy with one another. Regan signs to Topsy, “You okay?” Topsy signs back, “Fine. I am . . . fine” (228). In continuing the conversation, Topsy and Regan form a bond that becomes integral to the novella’s plot (and which I will not spoil here). Regan is surprised when Topsy signs back the simple question, “You?” In this moment, they form what one would call a “human connection” in most circumstances, but what must be called a “human-elephant connection” here. Regan signs back, “Not really . . . And I ain’t convinced you are either” (228). The repercussions of this connection resonate through the rest of the book.
In the contemporary section of The Only Harmless Great Thing, Kat works with an elephant translator to try to convince a group of elephants to make a sacrifice for the future of humanity (no spoiler, so I will not go into detail here). They communicate as equals; the elephant matriarch might be more articulate than the researcher Kat, which throws Kat into ethical doubt about her life’s work.
I read this book in one sitting and when I finished I made a mental list of what The Only Harmless Great Thing was “about,” for lack of a better world. Here is that list: gender politics, gender violence, poverty, labor, slavery, embodiment, communication, death, horrible compromise, satisfaction. Perhaps most importantly, the book’s “aboutness” is doubled: Bolander shows us all these things as elephants experience them, and as humans experience them. She does this, of course, as a human writer must, with human language. The Only Harmless Great Thing’s great strength is that it seems to be also written in elephant language. As the elephant voice says: “Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands” (497).