In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is weird and wonderful, cruel and beautiful. Can you possibly believe that two awful chapters from history — the “radium girls” and an electrocuted elephant — would fit together in one story? Author Brooke Bolander pulls off this seemingly impossible task in a new novella that almost defies description — you just need to experience it.
The narration shifts between elephant and human characters, in language that’s often hauntingly strange and beautiful.
At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.
The human parts of the story are heart-breaking and outrage-inducing… but so are the elephants’ sections. As I read, the story of the radium factory workers’ treatment left me feeling furious. The involvement of elephants in the radium story is startling but makes sense in this alternate world in which humans and elephants converse via sign language, and the elephant language (Proboscidian) is taught in universities.
Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a quick but powerful read, unusual and a little crazy and definitely something that will stick in my mind for quite some time. It made me angry and sad, and also made me think. Highly recommended.
But chains can be snapped, O best beloved mooncalf. Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands. And one chain snapping may cause all the rest to trumpet and stomp and shake the trees like a rain-wind coming down the mountain, washing the gully muddy with bright lightning tusks and thunderous song.
PS – The story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island, is changed and reinvented here in this novella — but yes, there was a real Topsy, and she really was put to death in 1903 by being electrocuted in front of a crowd as part of a public spectacle. It’s a horrible story that seems too outrageous to be true, but sadly, it really happened. You can read more about Topsy’s awful fate here.
PPS – Reading this novella reminded me that I picked up a copy of the non-fiction book The Radium Girls (winner of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for history and biography), and really need to read it!
Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Length: 96 pages
Genre: Alternate history