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The Only Harmless Great Thing Kindle Edition
Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette
Finalist for the Hugo, Locus, Shirley Jackson, and Sturgeon Awards
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
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.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
“Devastatingly powerful. The Only Harmless Great Thing is a searing meditation on myth, history, and the persistence of poison in all its terrible forms. Bolander gives voice to the voiceless with such controlled and perfect fury the pages seem to char and burn as you read. It feels like an alternate Just So Story revealed to us by an ecstatic punk oracle. I can’t stop thinking about it. Nor will you.” ―Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
“Bolander shares literary DNA with Le Guin, and shows it in this tragic and triumphant novella.” ―John Scalzi, New York Times bestselling author of Old Man's War
“Bolander's skilled prose always leaves me agog, but days after finishing The Only Harmless Great Thing, I'm still swimming around in its depths with a sense of wonder. It's beautiful and sad and relatable and unremittingly, crucially defiant.” ―Kevin Hearne, New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Druid Chronicles
“A brutal story beautifully told. [Bolander's] prose sings like music.... Read this.” ―Chuck Wendig, author of Star Wars: Aftermath
"Characteristically poetic prose . . . poignant." ―The Guardian
“This handcrafted arrow of a novella becomes more absorbing with each read.” ―Kirkus
“The most beautiful and heart-breaking piece of work Bolander’s written to date.” ―Amal El-Mohtar, Lightspeed Magazine
“Elephants have infrasound and memory and majesty; we have Brooke Bolander.” ―Lawrence M. Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard
“A fierce and visionary Jumbo Agonistes aimed straight at the present day―mango-pulping, temple-smashing, exploding out of history with the all the grand power and folly of story.” ―Max Gladstone, author of The Craft Sequence
“The Only Harmless Great Thing is Southern Gothic come to the big Northern City, where it settles in and begins to glow, dangerously, and to sing, mightily, and to break out and trample reality into a new shape. This book is transformative. I can hear echoing long after I've set it down.” ―Fran Wilde, author of Updraft, Cloudbound, and Horizon.
“Fork-suckingly, plate-lickingly good.” ―Nat Cassidy, author of Steal the Stars
“As succinct as it is beautiful: a snippet of times and of characters who struggle with unthinkable injustice.” ―The Book Smugglers
- ASIN : B07142ZRWY
- Publisher : Tordotcom (January 23, 2018)
- Publication date : January 23, 2018
- Language : English
- File size : 897 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 96 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 1250169488
- Best Sellers Rank: #632,796 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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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 Only Harmless Great Thing is a story of cancer, a story of martyrdom, a story of stories. It’s about love of community, love of family, and righteous anger at those who would destroy those two precious things. It’s the story of a dying woman and the elephant who tried to stop humanity from killing one another for profit. It’s beauty in prose and pain.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the Radium Girls, I highly recommend at least glancing through the Wikipedia page prior to starting this novel. The Radium Girls worked for a company called the Radium Dial Company, where they labored in a factory painting watch dials with glowing paint containing – you guessed it – radium. The higher-ups of the company, well aware of the dangers of radium, used lead gloves and shields to avoid breathing in even trace amounts of the paint. The girls were told ingesting radium was good and healthy for them; in order to paint the fine lines needed for the watches, they were instructed to “point” the brushes using their lips. Believing it harmless, many used the radium to paint their faces, nails, etc. All of them died of cancer. Slowly. It starts with a loose tooth. A pain in the jaw. Loose joints and a generalized ache in their body. Soon, her face might begin to rot.
“They’ve crammed Jodie between a moaning old mawmaw with rattling lungs and an unlucky lumber man who tried to catch a falling pine tree with his head. What’s left of her jaw is so swathed with stained yellow-and-red gauze she half-takes after one of those dead pyramid people over in Egypt-land. Regan’s smelled a lot of foulness in her short span of doing jobs nobody else wants to touch, but the roadkill-and-rotting-teeth stink coming up off those bandages nearly yanks the cheese sandwich right out of her stomach.”
In this alternate timeline, elephants are sentient and capable of communication with humans using a form of trunk sign-language. Their thoughts are poetic, their culture based on the herd, the family, and the concept of “We” instead of “I.” Due to the public outcry against The Radium Dial Company, all the remaining (dying) girls are sent home… except for one, who is kept to train the elephants to take the girls’ place in the factory.
The elephants have a rich culture and history, and Bolander isn’t afraid to let that shine through in her prose. It is strange, alien, and above all, beautiful. The great matriarchs are filled with stories. They are filled with anger at the situation. They sing of freedom and revenge. They are filled with sadness and pity for the poor, poor things called humans which have no concept of “We” and kill one another needlessly. The contrast between the two parallel stories is striking, as is the small measure of “We” both the human and elephantine characters manage to find in one another in their last moments before going out in a blaze of glory as martyrs for their brothers and sisters still being harmed by Radium Dial.
“Every day she eats the reeking, gritty poison. The girl with the rotten bones showed her how, and occasionally Men come by and strike her with words and tiny tickling whip-trunks if she doesn’t work fast enough. She feels neither. She feels neither, but a rage buzzes in her ear low and steady and constant, a mosquito she cannot crush. Like a calf she nurses the feeling. Like the calf she’ll never Mother she protects it safe in her belly, safe beneath the vast bulk of Herself, while every day it grows, suckles, frolics between her legs and around the stall and around the stall and around the stall until she’s whirling red behind the eyes where the Stories should go.
One day soon the rage will be tall enough to reach the high-branch mangoes.
Okay? the rotten-bone-dead-girl signs. Okay? Are you okay?”
This is a short novella at only 93 pages, yet not one to miss. This is a story that requires a bit of time to digest before you’re ready to move on from it. I recommend settling in for an evening to read this in one sitting, followed up by some time with tea and a cozy blanket afterwards to mull over the story and allow the melancholy time to fade to a dull ache for the girls who were sacrificed in the pursuit of capitalism.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is painful, fragile, and shining.
The Only Harmless Great Thing 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.
A New Mythology
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.
A Conversation About Mankind
The fantastical element of The Only Harmless Great Thing 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.
Top reviews from other countries
I strongly recommend this book, not just to anyone already interested in sci fi or alternative history, but to anyone with an open mind, who enjoys encountering new characters and new stories (not just ones with a simple linear plot), who has a sense of wonder for the strangeness and beauty of animals and recognises humanity's persistent capacity for cruelty and inhumanity. It is a sharp gem that will not leave you unchanged.
An alternative history fantasy that jumps between timeframes in the past, present and future - characters both Homo-Sapien and Proboscidea.
Taking inspiration from the histotic tragic Electrocution of an Elephant on Coney Island and the Radium Girls - the author Brooke Bolander has weaved together a tapestry of words and emotions into something special.
More than that, there is something about it that affects you at a soul-deep level. At least, it did me. Something I can't articulate properly moved as I read this. I can't recommend it highly enough - it's one of the most inventive, perceptive and profound works of fiction published in my lifetime. I won't be surprised if Bo Bolander goes down as one of the greats of our age.