The subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived,” but it reads more like a piece of adventure fiction. The author says the story is true, and I don’t doubt that most of it is. However, the author doesn’t offer any sources (no bibliography, no end notes), doesn’t even say he spoke extensively to Bram and/or Gertie Gunter. Helfer does mention in his author’s note that he used “research and documented proof, which may-or may not-be true.” He also mentions “‘hearsay’-that which people tell you is factual,” but he never says what people he talked to. Finally, he writes the sentence that makes me wonder… “Then a little (poetic) political license is taken.” What does that mean? I take it to mean the author embellished the story, but when and where?
The part of this book that bothered me most was all the direct quotes. How can a true story include so much dialogue? Did people really remember exactly what they said 30, 40, 50 years before? I doubt it. Why use direct quotes if you can’t be sure you’re quoting directly? Usually when authors make up dialogue, they note that they’ve done so, saying it was written to the best of their (or their subjects’) recollection. Nothing like that here, just direct quotes on page after page.
I guess a reader of nonfiction never really knows what parts of a true story are true and what parts are embellishment.
The book is well written and kept me interested, kept me reading. It is an adventure story, and what an adventure Modac and Bram (her trainer-companion-best friend) have. They survive a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. They live in an Elephantarium somewhere in India. They meet the Royal White Elephant, which no one was allowed to see without permission from the maharajah. They work in the Indian teak forests. They are forced to go to war. They are a huge success in a circus in the United States. So much happens to the elephant and her boy!
Someone asked if this book is suitable for kids. While there are a few mentions of human sexuality (two older teenagers are described as engaging in “romantic intimacy” and there is a reference to a heterosexual couple playfully wrestling and the young woman being surprised by the man’s “hardness”), there’s an entire elephant sex scene. The male elephant’s “erect penis was bursting for attention…Some six feet in length, perhaps weighing twenty-five pounds, and prehensile…” (Prehensile?! Prehensile?!) After the cow elephant was introduced, “[she] spread her hind legs to support the bull’s weight…The penis had searched and found the vulva. Insertion was imminent…As the delicate tips of their trunks met, the orgasm erupted.” Don’t give this book to your 10 year-old unless you want to discuss all that at the breakfast table!
Honestly, I’d be more worried about kids being subjected to the violence in this book. There is quite a bit of violence here, much of which I did not want to read. The shipwreck scene and its aftermath are scary. A man is executed (death by elephant) for killing his wife. Bandits try to steal an elephant and kill her human friend, and she (the elephant) gets vengeance. A woman escapes rape only through death. Elephants and their people are forced to go to war when rebels take over their village. War leads to injury and death. Modoc is mistreated by strangers throughout this book, sometimes in extremely violent ways.
If I were responsible for children, I wouldn’t let anyone under the age of 15 read this book unless I knew s/he possessed a high level of maturity. Even so, I would read the book first and have frequent (possibly chapter by chapter) discussions of what the characters were experiencing. This book offers a lot of possibilities for nightmares, so I’d offer a lot of possibilities for talking through all those scary parts.