Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II NPR environmental and animal journalist Vicki Croke’s new book about the British elephant mahout and teak man James “Billy” Williams in Burma in the interregnum between the 20th Century’s World Wars easily began as the best nonfiction I’d read all year. Elephants and Burma--what a combination of mysteries. No matter how many books about elephants that I read, I always learn something new. I love knowing of elephant skills, abilities, capabilities. In her Introduction, Croke tells us:
"Williams had witnessed a life among the elephants that would be hard for those outside to fathom—in fact, he reported behaviors that many would not believe until they were validated decades later by biologists in the field. He had seen these creatures thoughtfully solve problems, use tools, protect one another, express joy and humor, stand up for something more important than their own safety, and even, perhaps, comprehend the concept of death. There was a largeness to them that was about more than their physical size, a quality triggered especially when their sense of decency or outrage was provoked.

Could one really call it decency? Williams thought so. Courage defined them, He had witness their bravery—mothers defending babies, tuskers squaring off against each other, closely bonded females running toward danger, not away, to protect one another.

These were simple lessons from the animals, like how to be content with what he had. And there were more complex ones, too: the realization, for instance that trust requires much more than affection; it depends on mutual confidence—strength, not niceness. Or that sometimes it’s not necessary to know what elephants or people are thinking, as long as one honors what they are feeling."

Croke explains the differences between African and Asian elephants, in size and temperament, and gets into details about living in the plains and mountains of Burma. Details of early teak harvesting are both sad and fascinating. It takes two to three years to harvest a tree, and “it could take anywhere from five to twenty years for a log to become a milled plank." Demand for teak, a hard wood resistant to insects and weather damage increased dramatically in the first part of the 20th century, from "sixty-three thousand tons of teak a year in the late 1800s to more than five hundred thousand tons annually in Williams’s early years." Additionally we learn that "a teak forest 10,000 square miles in extent may be capable of producing only seven or eight thousand trees a year."

Living as a teak forester sounds formidable, and lonely. The hardship of the sheeting rain of the monsoon and the isolation of the jungle life would keep most folks away, but Billy Williams had the consolation of working with the world’s largest land animals. Williams suffered innumerable bouts of malaria and other illnesses that nearly took him out, but he soldiered on without complaint and once recovered, raced back to his post and his elephants.

The only thing that keeps this from being the best book I have ever read is the section on Williams’ involvement in WWII as it played out in Burma. Undoubtedly the Japanese had a strategy for domination that included rustling about in the jungles of Burma, but somehow that did not make any sense to me. No book can answer every question, but if the author makes the reader interested enough to seek out more information as a result of their reading, the book can be considered a success. In this way, Croke's work makes one want to know more. Many of us are more familiar than we’d like to be with the European theatre, but the war in Asia deserved just a few sentences of intent and context.

Once Croke began to talk about the war, the map of Burma given after the Introduction seemed too thinly marked. I could not find the locations she spoke of in terms of troop movements and distances became unclear. Details about the elephants’ involvement in bridge building required more than Williams’ diary would have provided. I understand the difficulties she must have encountered, but I would have preferred, then, not to have the title so focused on the participation of elephants in WWII. It was neither the most interesting nor the most complete section of the narrative.

In any case, the elephants were involved in at least two long distance treks carrying refugees across vast distances and through difficult terrain, forgoing their usual regime of being river-washed and set free each night to forage and rest. Despite all the hardships of teak work and war, they made the best of their situation and came through when called upon for help. Williams himself earned commendation for his war effort which included mustering and handling the elephants behind enemy lines and we know from his own writings how much credit he gave the animals in his care, especially one exceptional bull called Bandoola, whom he loved.

The resurrection of this riveting account of elephant teak and war work in Burma is due entirely to the research and attention of Vicki Croke, whose fluency makes the narrative absorbing. She has a sensitivity regarding animal and human behaviors that seems exceptionally perceptive. Despite my quibbles about the final third of the book, the story is packed with detail and photos of early teak work in Burma and is definitely one of the best books of my year. This extraordinary nonfiction title is well worth the time/money investment to locate and read a copy and would be a great book to gift someone for the upcoming holiday season.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments:

Post a Comment