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Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived Paperback – August 26, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

Modoc is the joint biography of a man and an elephant born in a small German circus town on the same day in 1896. Bram was the son of an elephant trainer, Modoc the daughter of his prize performer. The boy and animal grew up devoted to each other. When the Wunderzircus was sold to an American, with no provision to take along the human staff, Bram stowed away on the ship to prevent being separated from his beloved Modoc. A shipwreck off the Indian coast and a sojourn with a maharajah were only the beginning of the pair's incredible adventures. They battled bandits, armed revolutionaries, cruel animal trainers, and greedy circus owners in their quest to stay together. They triumphed against the odds and thrilled American circus audiences with Modoc's dazzling solo performances, only to be torn apart with brutal suddenness, seemingly never to meet again. Hollywood animal trainer Ralph Helfer rescued Modoc from ill-treatment and learned her astonishing story when Bram rediscovered her at Helfer's company. His emotional retelling of this true-life adventure epic will make pulses race and bring tears to readers' eyes. --Wendy Smith

From School Library Journal

Grade 3-5–From her early days in Germany to a starring role in Americas Ringling Brothers Circus by way of shipwreck and months of teak hauling in India, Modocs story matches her larger-than-life size. The elephants life is intertwined with that of a boy with whom she was raised from infancy and who became her longtime circus partner. According to the book jacket, the author owned Modoc for the last 20 years of her life. The story is adapted from his adult book, Modoc. The large picture-book format is the typical choice for Lewins fine watercolors, boldly portraying the dramatic episodes of the elephants life and the story of friendship, separation, and reunion. This bold and heartwarming adventure tale should have wide appeal.–Margaret Bush, Simmons College, Boston
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Paperback: 325 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (August 26, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060929510
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060929510
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (503 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,923 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ralph Helfer is a well-known Hollywood animal behaviorist who was one of the first to use affection and kindness to train wild animals. He lives in Los Angeles and Kenya, where he leads safari tours.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

329 of 361 people found the following review helpful By M. King on February 16, 2007
Format: Paperback
Let me start off by saying that I do love this book. It's a beautiful story that is well written and filled with emotion. Admittedly, this book had me in tears a few times. It is definitely aimed at tugging the heart strings.

What disappoints me about this book is that it claims to be a true story, when it is indeed mostly fiction. There are only tiny bits of fact in there, and those facts are mostly exaggerated. Things that started tipping me off:

1. The author describes most of the Indian elephants (aka Asian elephants) as having tusks. In reality, tusks on Asian elephants are pretty uncommon.

2. The author describes Modoc as having tusks, even to the end of the book soon before she died. Yet in the pictures in the book, the elephant shown has no tusks at all.

3. A circus owner on the hunt for *years* in a foreign country all for one elephant? I doubt that seriously.

4. No dates are given, and for being a work of "fact", I found it odd that no sources are ever listed except for very vague comments (i.e. saying that newspapers wrote articles, but never naming any specific paper)

5. Most information cannot be found except in reference to this particular book.

6. There is an act of a bull's mating with a cow (bull=male elephant, cow=female elephant) that seems way over the top and incredibly ferocious, quite unlike actual mating "rituals" among elephants.

After some extensive research, including research with the Circus Historical Society, I discovered that many elephants were named Modoc, the most famous being "Big Modoc" owned by the Ringling Bros Circus.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
I am an elephant person, and I am a voracious reader. While the writing is not terribly sophisticated, the story is beautiful. I bought this book on a whim and it is perhaps one of my favorites of all time. I could not put it down and cried at the end for two reasons - one of which being the book was finished. It lifted my spirits and made me feel the world is a better place. I have decided to believe the story as true. Whether or not it is, it is a triumph of the spirit - go Modoc!!!
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Sally B. Lambert on January 22, 2001
Format: School & Library Binding
My life will never be the same after having read this book! I find myself thinking of all the perils and hardships and suffering both the elephant and man went through. Ralph Helfer is to be praised for bringing this story to life. As an animal lover, I relate totally to the love and attachment of the boy/man and the elephant. I, too, believe that the "cross over"/heaven will include our beloved animals. I cried my eyes out when Modoc was saved after abuse and when she and Bram were reunited for the rest of their lives. Everyone should read this book - it is unbelievable, the best book I have ever read in 51 years!
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Gaia1muse on March 6, 2008
Format: Paperback
I fell hook, line and sinker for this book. I fell in love with the story, the elephant Modoc, the boy....even the author -- Ralph Helfer -- who becomes a character in his own book as the rescuer of "Modoc."

And as a true story -- I was spellbound. Why, this elephant had more character than most humans I know!

But that was when I thought it was a true story. If I had thought Modoc was a fictional account I would have been less enchanted. It would be a nice tale, but not well written enough to warrant my enchantment.

In doing my own research after the reading I came up with several sites and people who doubt Helfer's veracity. Moreover, I could find only one (audio) interview in which Helfer talks about the book -- but it's not with an interviewer who had ever read it! So no questions were asked about how much truth there was in this literally "fabulous" tale.

I'm afraid I have to say -- after reading people's blogs and comments and noticing discrepancies myself now that I don't think the story is true. I think it's a collage of Modoc stories and pictures (it turns out there were three elephants named Modoc in U.S. circus history.)

Helfer even says in the beginning that he takes truth, hearsay and a dash of some of this and thatand then combines it all to make his story. He even says he stretches the truth -- but we want to believe it so much -- we take it all as gospel.

So my recommend is -- until Helfer has a serious interview about the facts in Modoc -- unlikely since he spends most of his time in Africa -- that you read this book as fiction -- in which case, I'm sad to say, it's okay. Not great. Okay.

And now I know why there was such a commotion about A Million Little Pieces -- James Frey's book. When it's true the reader's heartstrings are tugged in a different way. Really "true" life is still what amazes us most. It makes a difference.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Anyechka on September 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a really incredible and moving story about how Bram Gunterstein and his elephant Modoc grew up together and shared all of their lives together except for the years when they were separated after the circus they were in sold all of the animals. I love animals, and it's nice to see a story about the bond between a human and an elephant; most human-animal stories feature dogs, cats, horses, ponies, and sometimes birds and small mammals like guinea pigs. It's also told in a very lively and page-turning way, which makes it a quick read. Some reviewers have suggested that there's no way Bram and Modoc could have had all of those adventures, like being shipwrecked, the mystical psychic encounter with the Raja's white elephant in the middle of the night, the war in Burma around the time of WWI, and all of their circus adventures, but many times truth is stranger than fiction, even if Mr. Helfer might have taken artistic license with some of the things he obviously wasn't there for.

My main problem with the story is that dates are only given maybe two or three times. We're not even told what year it is when the story begins. That makes it really hard to keep track of how old the two main characters are over the years and through their many adventures. And where are all of the important world events going on during this time, particularly WWI (which we only see a little of towards the end of their stay in Burma, when the liberation army comes to their village and terrorises everyone) and WWII? Don't they have any impact on the lives of these characters and the events they're taking part in? Also, a lot is made of Mr. North's "racial attitudes," but the only thing Jewish about Bram that I saw in the book is his last name.
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