Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

A perplexing read, this little book takes time to sink in before you realize the brilliance the author has put forward. Part mythology, part alternate history, part science fiction and part linguistics, the author has created a quilt of stories that together provide a bizarre and thought-provoking look at how this American tragedy might have been.


Brooke Bolander, 2018


An alternate history of the Radium girls and the elephants they teach to paint. A young girl dying of radium poisoning. An elephant trying to escape the brutality of men. A modern day scientist trying to bargain with the leader of the elephants. A myth of the stories elephants remember and pass on.



This book is all over the place and that’s what makes it work. There are four narratives going on. The first, from the perspective of a modern day scientist, follows her attempts to strike a compromise with the leader of the elephants (who are able to talk in this version of history). The second, from the perspective of a young girl in the 1940s, follows her final days teaching an elephant how to paint with radium. The third, from the perspective of the elephant the girl is teaching, shows the inner thoughts she has at the mistreatment from the men around her. The fourth, from the perspective of a general storyteller, shows a common myth believed by the elephants, depicting the importance of stories. It all melts together, jumping from story to story, and it creates this rip-roaring bundle of narrative that leaves you thinking well after you’ve finished this short novella.


It’s always interesting when authors find a way to weave an unexpected form into their writing. In this instance, the author has created a unique mythology believed by the elephants. It depicts how they came to be storytellers and how this tradition of storytelling has continued into modern day. This follows the old saying alleging elephants can’t forget, and it’s used effectively in the modern day narrative as the lead elephant vows to make humanity remember the wrongs it has perpetrated against her kind. It’s a great creation myth and is very effective as you try to figure out how these elephants are important to this tragedy.


The fantastical element of this story is, of course, the ability of the elephants to talk and understand through their own version of sign language. At first, it might seem like a kind of parlor trick to the reader, but underneath is a deeper message about the animals humanity has used for nefarious purposes since the beginning of consumerism. Mankind realized they were killing young women in these radium factories and, in this version of history, instead of stopping the practice altogether, they found a species they believed to be lesser and forced them to die for a profit. Creating a species of abused animals who not only understand the wrongs but can speak about them is a wakeup call. It could be seen as a conversation on capitalism, slavery, animal rights – and that’s what makes this little book so eye-opening. It makes you think about the faults of our species in hopes that we might change.

Photo by Nashad Abdu on Unsplash

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