At first glance, Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing may give the impression of a quick and easy read. It may even seem overambitious to propose a melding of two historic tragedies that are often glossed over—the Radium Girls of Newark, NJ, and the execution of Topsy the elephant—could be told in only 89 pages. For such an unassuming novel, it packs a hell of a punch.
Sifting through time, we watch a new cataclysmic tragedy unfold in real time and in retrospect. Not only do we see it through the familiar arrogant eyes of mankind, but also the unforgiving collective memory of elephantkind. As Regan awaits settlement checks from U.S. Radium, her final days are spent teaching Topsy and other elephants purchased from circuses to paint radioluminescent watch dials.
Both shackled to their fates, they make the brutal, fearless march toward death with such visceral contempt for their masters, it is impossible not to feel enraged at the injustice of it all. But even after being driven mad by the pain and losing teeth in a rotting jaw, Topsy and Regan can still bite hard enough to leave a mark on the world long after we have turned to dust. So few characters are so powerfully written as they take Death by the ear and say, “We’re going to hell, but we’re going my way.”
Through Kate’s eyes, we can’t help but cringe at the way Topsy and Regan’s story has been perverted from a catastrophe wrought by mankind’s hubris and greed to a Disney-fied lesson in undeserved forgiveness. The contemporary generation’s crass adoption of elephants as cartoon mascots of energy is an uncomfortably real look at how we might have actually tried to rewrite history and claim that such devastation was far from our fault. Even more haunting is what we know from the first page all the way to the end: that in spite of all our justifying and feeble attempts at making things sort of right, we are our own undoing.
Bolander delivers a powerful, grim knowledge that burrows deep into the marrow of conscience and refuses to be forgotten. With many tragic stories, we waste our time wishing things were headed for a happier ending. But like Regan and Topsy, we know better. We’ll meet the grisly end unflinching.