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The Only Harmless Great Thing

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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.

93 pages, Paperback

First published January 23, 2018

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About the author

Brooke Bolander

31 books223 followers
Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. Her debut book with Tor.com Publishing, THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING, is scheduled for a 2018 release. She is represented by Michael Curry at Donald Maass Literary Agency.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 831 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
May 20, 2019
**congratulations on your nebula award! best novelette 2018! i do not love the word, but i love the win!**

in just under a hundred pages, brooke bolander figured out a way to rewrite american history so it’s even worse, develop two-and-change distinct storylines, flesh out the thoughts, traditions, mythologies, language, and other components of a cultural heritage belonging to a familiar nonhuman species, and drag the reader through puddles of sorrow and sick-feelings before shaking ‘em off into hope, triumph, and a raised fist of “fuck all y’all.”

plus, she manages all of that in this strikingly fanciful singsongy prose that is very appealing and adds even more dimension to the story with its suggestion of “otherness:”

Each moonrise the metal bird in the box screams a mad musth cry. Like all Man-things, the bird is obsessed with the rising and setting of the sun. The night-whistle signals rest. The night-whistle signals a bag full of tasteless dried oats, a brief escape from sad dead girls and tormenting men, and four more wooden walls, the inside of a dry skull plugged tight with moldy hay and dung. She remembers a place where the Night was made of warm shuffle and star-graze, tearing up sweet wet grass by the trunkful with moonshaded Mothers when she was old enough to tooth. She remembers, but there is no sweet grass to tear up by the trunkful, so instead she thoughtfully tears apart her stall, board by splintered board. There will be a beating in the morning. There are always beatings in the morning.

lovely, bittersweet, and powerful. it delivers so much more than its length suggests. read it, read it, read it now - you definitely have the time.


this is a reese's peanut butter cup of shameful american history. i must devour it.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,097 reviews17.7k followers
June 23, 2019
“No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth's nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging alternate realities.”

This novella is a story about stealing back your narrative from those who wish to change it, to sanitize history and make their own actions sound good. It is a discussion of the animal capacity to feel and the morality of making animals props in our war. And it is a discussion of the human tendency to let things progress as long as it doesn't hurt the privileged class. With a discussion of revionism, a strong undercurrent of revolt against the horrors of our past, and compelling leads, it is so amazing.

It’s amazing how much I’ve begun to appreciate Tor’s recent novellas. Short fiction like this is a really amazing medium for thematic explorations that might not be conveyed in long-form fiction, and perhaps more importantly, Tor's novellas are so in my niche. Novellas like this one are about revolt against oppressive institutions and the subtle patterns humanity exhibits, whether in an alternate universe or our own. There’s so much here crammed into so few pages and I love it.

I honestly don’t have a lot else to say about this - morality discussions of this caliber benefit from actually being read - but I want to mention one thing so you're prepared: this novella is weird. I mean, just try reading that blurb. It is a fucking TRIP. And the story itself is one too, honestly - quickly-changing perspectives made the first 20 pages or so a bit difficult to read. But as the book progresses, it becomes easier and easier to connect to the story and the characters. And maybe the weirdness is a good thing: I can honestly say I have never read anything like this before and I doubt I ever will. Brooke Bolander is definitely an author to watch in the future. This novella made a huge personal impact on me and I'd totally recommend it for a short but super developed thematic meditation.

Blog | Goodreads | Twitter | Youtube
October 8, 2019
Okay, after some very intensive, most scientific research, I have come to the following conclusion: this book was not written by Brooke Bolander but by her evil twin, Crooke Colander. Yes is has. I mean, how else would one explain that I almost quite nearly DNFed this story before the 20% mark? Now if that is isn’t the scientifically irrefutable proof that it is impossibly impossible for Brooke Bolander of the Glorious Talons and Luscious Trail of Dead to have written the present, most discombobulating story, I don’t know what is.

Indeed, my dear Spockie. Indeed.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is everything Bolander’s story usually aren’t: verbose as fish. Disjointed and clunky as shrimp. Confusing as squid. (Even more so if you’ve never heard of Topsy the Elephant and/or the Radium girls. So congrats to the author/editor/whatever for not giving an ounce of background information on either subjects. Ridiculously clueless readers such as my little self are most grateful and stuff.)

Worse, the writing smacks of self-complacency. Bolander waxes poetic like a crab on acid, tries way too hard to be lyrical and clever, and all emotions are lost in the process. This should have been a moving, dramatic, powerful story but it ended up being flatter than my favorite herd of ironing boards. Quite the achievement, that. Especially when you know how gripping, poignant and punch-packing some of Bolander’s stories are.

Yes it is, Hieronymus dear.

Nefarious Last Words (NLW™): I don’t know what the members of the Nebula Award jury smoked before they decided to pick this story as best novelette for 2018, but it must have been high quality stuff. I want some.

Pre-review nonsense

Actual rating: 2.385896211458 stars.

Who the bloody shrimp are you and what the stinking fish have you done with Brooke Bolander?!

Review to come and stuff.

Brooke Bolander Maths :

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of The Dead


Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies



Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,389 reviews1,470 followers
May 5, 2019
Author Brooke Bolander takes two unrelated historical events and ties them together in an effort to make a statement about the inherent darkness in humanity. Historically speaking, an elephant named Topsy was actually put to death by electrocution. The radium dial painters, whom you can read about in The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, actually existed.

In this science fiction/alternative history story, elephants are a sentient race, forced to work where the radium girls once worked. And to bear the same lethal doses of radiation. It leads to a sad conclusion.

"The 'greater good', as you put it, was also used to justify the use of my people in your radium factories during the war, was it not? To save costs. To save your own from poisoning." pg 32

This new history is reflected in a future narrative that takes place between the historical portions of the story. (You've got three stories being told from three different narrators. I didn't find it confusing once I figured out that the author switched stories after each break on the page. But prior to that, I was grasping at straws.)

In this new future, the government is looking for a way to warn humankind away from nuclear waste sites. They decide to ask the elephants if they can alter their DNA, to make them glow in a version of a living "keep away" sign.

And so here Kat sits, tie straightened, hair teased heaven-high, waiting to meet with an elephant representative. Explaining the cultural reasons why they want to make the elephant's people glow in the dark is going to be an exercise in minefield ballet..." pg 12

I felt like this book lessened each historical event rather than making them stronger by tying them together. They were both awful, yes, and sentient elephants deserve their own story. The women who suffered and died because no one shared the dangers of radiation with them, deserve their own story. Something far more than the simplistic alternative future Bolander gives them in which, yet again, elephants were about to be abused by human beings and confined to a nuclear wasteland.

"They will see how we shine, and they will know the truth." pg 59

In some ways, it all reminded me of what was done to the Native American tribes. Which was also awful. And also deserves its own write-up.

Another quibble I had with this story, Bolander takes aim at the males of both species, painting them as both stupid and addicted to violence.

"The bull rolled one red eye to look up at her. He laughed with malice and with scorn, but most of all with madness. As is the way with bulls. ... Furmother looked at him with sadness — because then as now We pitied the bulls, our Sons and Fathers and occasional Mates." pgs 30-31

Can you imagine if those pronouns were reversed? "The Furmother rolled one red eye to look up at him. She laughed with malice and with scorn, but most of all with madness. As is the way with Furmothers..." I don't believe in hurling hate or blame from either end of the spectrum. We're all in this together.

On a more positive note, the curious collective intelligence of the elephants that the author hinted at was fascinating, as well as their different methods of communication. But this short story format doesn't allow for an in-depth examination of this aspect of the story.

"They had blown raw red holes through the Many Mothers, hacked away their beautiful tusks, and the sky had not fallen and she had not mourned the meat. She was She — the survivor, the prisoner, the one they called Topsy — and She carried the Stories safe inside her skull, just behind her left eye, so that they lived on in some way." pg 14

Elephants are something special. I'm reminded of the Romans and how they loved to kill people and all manner of animals in the Coliseum, except elephants. They banned killing elephants because they couldn't stand to look the creatures in the eye as they died. There was something too sad to be borne that was communicated in the moments before an elephant's death, something that crossed species lines.

That's why I wanted this story to work. And, sadly, I just didn't connect with it.
Profile Image for Cassandra.
Author 114 books1,704 followers
June 17, 2017

Caveats first: I'm another Tor.com author; I know Brooke Bolander as a friend. The draft I read? One of the earlier versions of the finished product, I'm sure.

But stranger, if you're here, combing through the wilds of Goodreads to see if this book is worth pre-ordering or buying, the answer's simple:


The Only Harmless Great Thing is a raw nerve, played by an orchestra. A song of ache and ghosts, radium girls whispering from across the ether, a thousand bad things tied together with the question 'what if' and given the opportunity to exact a grim revenge. It has angry elephants. It has girls at the end of their ropes. It has desperation. It is full of dying.

And it is beautiful. Bolander swings between three PoVs in a tightly plotted narrative, changing voices for each. And I'm not talking about small little changes. Every voice has its own melody, its own cadence and lilt. And it is all still perfectly Bolander with her jagged, seething, desert-wind prose. This book was gorgeous, unforgettable when I first saw it.

By the time you see it?

Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
580 reviews4,083 followers
April 15, 2020
Una novela corta muy original, impactante y brutal.
La autora muesta a través de varias voces en el tiempo la crueldad del ser humano en aras del progreso de la ciencia.
Aunque al principio resulta confusa y caótica, pronto las piezas comienzan a encajar, y el fantástico prólogo ayuda a comprender los dos acontecimientos Históricos reales de los que parte la autora.
Personalmente desconocía la historia de las chicas de la radio y fue lo que más me impactó. Lo que más me gustó sin duda fue la narración de las elefantas.
Una lectura muy interesante y que deja un buen poso de reflexión tras de sí.
Profile Image for Fiona.
1,271 reviews234 followers
March 25, 2018
Try not to judge them; their mothers were short-lived, forgetful things, clans led by bulls with short memories and shorter tempers.

"Them" above being the human race - good luck not feeling at least a little judgy by the end of this excellent novella.

Combine the real world inspiration of Topsy the elephant, with another real life story of the Radium Girls, with another almost-true story of using glowing animals to warn future generations of nuclear waste hazards (happily someone remembered signs are a thing), and you could easily end up with a preachy mess. But Brooke Bolander's writing is as excellent as ever, and instead we're left with a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking book that tackles issues as weighty as the elephants themselves.

It is short, so I'm not going to spoil it, but don't go in expecting to renew your faith in humanity. And if you've any doubts on the intelligence of an elephant, let me leave you with the reunion of Shirley and Jenny, two ex-circus elephants, over twenty years since they were separated.

Shirley and Jenny

Elephants really are the best.
Profile Image for Sarah.
689 reviews163 followers
January 28, 2019
I received this for free as part of Tor.com’s free ebook of the month club. I wasn’t terribly excited about it when I saw it. But free is free and it was quick so I took a chance, and I’m so glad I did!

First- content warnings, because this isn’t an easy book to stomach.

I started this and admittedly had no idea what was going on. I thought it was pretty weird the story was being told by an elephant (humans have their parts, but it starts with the elephant). I didn’t really understand elephant culture- there was a learning curve. By 50% or so I adjusted and that was where the story took off for me. To be honest- I know the Radium Girls were a thing, but I have no idea why or what they did. I think that was half the point.

I’ve read a few friend reviews and I think the beauty in this story is that it seems everyone took something different from it. For me, I felt it was about the power of story in our lives, how truth can be manipulated, twisted, and bent, how truth can be buried. How the treatment of one story can mean the players fade into obscurity or sky rocket into fame. How that story will affect future generations.

“No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth’s nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging alternate realities.”

“Death decayed into history decayed into poolside anecdote. Francium wishes it had a half-life as short as tragedy’s.”

I found this particular message very powerful and so, so relevant, but there were also snippets of other messages I found really moving. The power of corporate America. Business and commerce rule all. Anyone will turn a blind eye to anything so long as there is food on the table. I think it would make for a fantastic read with friends or clubs because discussion really could be endless here.

Aside from that the voice and the writing here were superb. We have three pretty distinct voices, Regan, a Radium Girl, a poor southern farm girl with little education, Furmother, the most clever of all elephant mothers, and Kat, the scientist who wants to “help” and sees value in truth. I highlighted so many things in this tiny book. The tone and setting were dark and grim, yet she managed to maintain a note of dry (and admittedly dark) humor through out.

I only deducted a star because as I mentioned above- the book was really hard to read. I don’t have a lot of “triggers” but this hit two of them hard on the head.

All in all- the book can be read in a day and I highly recommend taking the time. It’s well worth it. Thanks to Tor.com for putting it on my shelf.

“her execution will amount to nothing more than a pitiful sentence in a history book swollen tick-tight with so many injustices the poisoning of a factory full of girls and the mean public death of a small god don’t even register as particularly noteworthy.”
Profile Image for Alasdair Stuart.
Author 38 books66 followers
September 16, 2017
Brooke Bolander's work has been defined to date by a combination of relentlessly precise language and colossal emotion depth and focus. Her short fiction is seared through with images that linger after you've finished reading and turns of phrase that sit on the backs of your eyes like the after image of the Sun. There is nothing that she's written that is less than brilliant.

This is the best thing she's written to date.

Combining two separate historical atrocities, Bolander explores both the scandal of the Radium Girls, a group of female factory workers killed by radiation poisoning from the paint that they were using and the murder of Topsy the elephant by electrocution. On their own, each of these is a low point for humanity. The first a brutally uncaring piece of feral capitalism. The second the murder of an animal turned into sport.

Together, here, Bolander does something extraordinary; makes them the basis for hope. Hard fought, incomplete, bloodied hope. But hope nonetheless.

The idea is simple and elegant and extraordinary. Elephants, with what's believed to be a measure of sentience, take over from the Radium Girls. As one of the Girls, her body falling apart, teaches her replacement the two women bond. They're different species, different minds, but they've both been used up, both been exploited. And they're both murderously, savagely angry.

Bolander cuts between their narrative, a second decades into the future and the oral history of the elephants to create a story that feels expansive even in such a short page count. You get everything you need to know about the modern day version of this world, the elephants and the incidents that led to the present day plot. You also get a glimpse into a world one quarter turn away from our own. It's a novella that's constantly light on it's feet; never slowing down and never stopping even as the biological frames of it's leads break down. They're powered by righteous anger. The novella is powered by them and the world it depicts is powered by that anger as much as they are. Not to mention a jet black streak of humour and endless, bruised compassion.

This is an astonishing debut in this format from an astonishing writer. It seethes with rage and love and knowledge. It demands to be read. Listen to it.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,773 reviews208 followers
April 3, 2018
Combining the sad and sickening histories of the US radium dial painters and an abused and murdered elephant, Topsy, Brooke Bolander has crafted a tightly written, brutal story of corporate greed and inhumane treatment, with some beautiful, elephant myth-making.
Profile Image for Elena .
53 reviews223 followers
December 30, 2021
Kat grew up, as most America children did, associating elephants with the dangers of radiation.

Books like The Only Harmless Great Thing are the very reason why I love reading: there's nothing like sitting back and gleefully enjoying the fruits of other people's creative efforts, especially when they reach such high peaks of awesomeness. Throw in a glass of good wine and a purring cat and that's the life, really. Brooke Bolander writes like a god, and packs so much in terms of imaginativeness, emotions and sheer stylistic beauty in 90-something pages that for a couple of hours you'll truly forget yourself, and once the story comes to an end the world you're living in, where elephants don't glow in the dark nor communicate with sapiens via sign language, will feel a little duller and more dismally mundane than when you first opened the book.
In darkness she waited, O Mothers,
Tethered, tormented, fearless,
Waited for the many Men to gather
The way wind
Waits for lightning
The way rain
Holds for thunder

They came to watch her die, to smell her flesh burn,
To see a Great Mother laid low.
They gathered in great boasting bull herds
Like flies to dung,
Like hyenas to a sickness,
Yapping barking tussling.
Poor things
Poor things,
Poor prideful, foolish things!

Recommended for: literally everyone, unless you're ideologically averse to reading the good stuff for some bizarre reason of yours. The darling people over at Tor are giving it away for free, go grab your copy before Jan. 19th.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,169 reviews1,143 followers
July 21, 2019
I started this novelette with zero expectation, really. It was free from Tor.com so I grabbed it and put it away in my read-whenever shelf. And then it became a Nebula nominee. And then I read my friend's reviews that sing full praises.

I finished the novelette smiling. It is profound tale, much more than just an alternate history. I love the poetic quality of the non-human POV, especially since it was laced with mythology. I am a sucker for fighting injustice stories, and this one is about the sanitization of history, the misinformation, the misrepresentation that disregard lives. I wish the ending is fleshed out a bit more but I am already pretty happy nonetheless.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
June 27, 2019
Oh, humanity, SHAME ON YOU.

This is a shamefest of shameful shenanigans, from Radium Girls to massive mistreatment of elephants...

But unlike us and our own grasp of history, THEY WILL REMEMBER. :)

I've read a few of Bolander's stories and they all struck me as hardcore. In the sense that they hit hard and make you feel it in your gut and gonads, barely letting up long enough to go for another sucker punch.

Let's face it. We don't look at the crap we do to ourselves very well. Narrative restructuring for our lives has made it almost impossible to see the truth for what it is. So let's write more stories that SHAME us for the immortal monsters that we're becoming, shall we? Break through that immense narrative wall.

Ah... but... and here's the really shameful bit... people don't want to hear how bad they're being. Pointing fingers is what they do best, but those fingers never land on ourselves.

I think this novella works best for those of us willing to take our share of the blame. Or at least get angry enough to start pointing a few extra fingers at some random folk and hope it sticks. :)

Is the story fun, otherwise? Sure! Pretty awesome text that's like poetry and being inside an elephant's head. :) Oh, wait... :)
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews388 followers
August 10, 2018
A charming oddity, The Only Harmless Great Thing provided an evening of loquacious elephants, radiation, and some surprisingly tight writing. Though an atypical choice of subject matter, an alternate history of the radium girls crossed with intelligent and communicative elephants works surprisingly well. Alternating between a modern and 1920s-era storyline, Bolander positions the historical influence of the unfolding 1920s story as an impetus for the modern research-oriented tale. It makes for a tight conclusion by the end of its 90 pages, with an emotional finish earned by the opening chapters.

What truly carries this novella is some A+ writing from Bolander. The disintegration of the lead radium girl is brought to disconcerting life through vividly-painted similes and a keen sense of sensory description. Some of the sentences in the book pop off the page they are so nicely put together, and that's always a pleasant surprise in a book taken up on a whim. What's more, I loved the histories of the elephants and the unique cadence of their language.

So, this is a SF, but mostly new-weird tale that is easily digestible and filled to the brim with fun and adventurous writing. I love the risks Tor.com has taken with their novella line and when it produces reads of this calibre, its hard not to take notice of whatever else they have coming down the pipeline. At a mere 90 pages, this is definitely worth a read for SF fans!
Profile Image for Yodamom.
2,003 reviews196 followers
February 1, 2019
I am quitting this. The writing is just taking too much concentration for me to figure out who is talking, what they are talking about. It's only 100 pages but @ 15% felt like 500- It's not the book for me.
Profile Image for Acqua.
536 reviews192 followers
May 27, 2018
3.75 stars.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of the most unusual books I've ever read. It's alternate history, and maybe it's even set in an alternate universe, as here elephants can talk with human through sign language.

Its premise is brilliant in its simplicity and weirdness: what if we combined the tragic story of Topsy the elephant with the tragic story of the Radium Girls? It's a great idea, really - in its very few pages, this novelette manages to talk about both the exploitation of women and animal abuse in US history.

It's weird and sad and angry, but can a story with this premise not be?

When I started it, I had no idea of what was going on, but after a few pages I understood that it follows four different PoVs, and at least three different timelines.
Kat is a scientist who is trying to find a way to hide nuclear waste so that no one will want to come near it. Her idea involves glowing elephants, who are, after the "Topsy incident", tied to nuclear radiation in the collective imagination.
Regan is a dying Radium Girl who is teaching elephants how to work with the poisonous paint. She knows she's teaching them how to die, but she needs money - or, maybe, there's something she can do to change things before she dies.
Topsy is the elephant at the center of the tragedy that will change everything.
Furmother is a character in the elephants' folktales. What they value the most are stories, the stories that elephants separated from their families will never get to tell.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is also really short. Too short for me to really get to know the characters, and too short to have a conclusion that didn't feel rushed. I felt like one of the plotlines didn't get closure.
I also didn't love the writing - it wasn't bad, it was... confusing, and while that made you feel the anger of the characters, it was difficult for me to get into the story.

I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Rachel Aranda.
887 reviews2,265 followers
May 1, 2019
I received a free digital copy from Tor Publishing in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.

The premise was an interesting idea - a rewriting/reimagined history combining the female Newark workers affected by radiation in the early 1900s, and the electrocution of an elephant by Thomas Edison on Coney Island, which took place around the same time. This is a complicated novella to follow as we have 3 timelines: the elephant folklore, elephant workers at the radiation plant, and the future where elephants and humans are in negotiations. Many people feel one way or another as to whether a timeline or POV could be done without in this story. In my opinion, I do feel that while the elephant folklore may not add too much to this story at first but given time it really adds to the story.

My biggest complaint about this novella is simple: it isn't easy to follow. It wasn't until over halfway into the read did I begin to understand what was going on. For me, I would have liked an easier to follow timeline and indications of whose POV was next. The part of the story I enjoyed the most were Jodie and Topsy's POVs. These two characters, who act as the radiation girls, really saved this story from a DNF or lower rating. I’m still struggling with my rating as for most of the novella even as I write this review. Throughout this read, I was thinking and feeling this read was somewhere between a 2-3 star rating and still am. I'll probably go back and forth between these ratings and maybe my thoughts will become clearer with a second read, but I'm not sure I ever will reread it.

It has taken a while for me to summarize my feelings on this novella but feel I've done a good job. It was okay...but I'm not sure I would recommend it except to fill a readathon requirement or if this genre is really your thing. Ms. Bolander's writing is poetic and has deep meaning at times, but it has a lot of issues that made this book a difficult read.
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
379 reviews199 followers
May 7, 2019
Short but stunning. Despite probably not being long enough to even qualify as a novella, there's a lot packed inside the small space. It's about history, revisionism, stories, taking your truth back, humans exploiting other species without regard for anything but ourselves. And it's beautiful. Highly, highly recommended.
Stories, too, they discovered. But it was a funny thing: They were shattered into pieces, like the Great Mother who had scattered them, and no one tale held to the ear by itself could ever be fully understood. To make them whole required many voices entwined. Then and only then could we become the undying We, endless voices passing along the one song that is also Many.
Set in an alternate reality where elephants - sentient and being able to communicate with humans - became associated with radium and the Radium Girls, the story is composed of several intertwining points of view, past and present combined. Kat, a scientist who wants to make elephants glowing wardens of the radioactive waste sites. Regan, a dying Radium Girl teaching an elephant to paint dials. Topsy herself, captive and angry and pitying humans. The elephant Mothers as a collective.

The prose is gorgeous and chameleon-like, fitting each perspective like a glove. Bolander plays with words and doesn't use phrases and language in conventional ways, especially when it comes to the elephants. It's exactly the kind of stunning, stylistic, modern prose I love, and even though it did take me a while to get into it, it was worth it.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: fans of literary SFF, those looking for a short read
Not recommended to: those who prefer straightforward stories

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
Profile Image for RJ - Slayer of Trolls.
824 reviews192 followers
September 21, 2018
Glow in the dark elephants and the radium girls who love them. Bolander is a rising talent who concerns herself less with what she says and more with how she says it, much like the Bedknobs and Broomsticks song: "It really doesn't matter what I say, what I say, as long as I say it with a flair!" The story itself is a mess, a mashup of alternate history with some SJW mores (it's no coincidence that all the male characters are evil), but the prose is beautiful at times making this a short but interesting read.
Profile Image for Beige .
269 reviews89 followers
May 29, 2019
There is a lot of creativity packed into this slim novella. As others mention, it does defy categorization; alternative history and fantasy really don't do it justice. The best way I can describe it is the author has taken two terrible wrongs commited in history and given the victims agency. It's quite unconventional for the first half, but I got my bearings by the second half and shed a tear by the end.

If you've read this and enjoyed the elephant mythology, I highly recommend the book The White Bone by Canadian author Barbara Gowdy.

And finally, props to the book cover designer. Its stunning and always catches my eye.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,222 reviews35 followers
February 12, 2018
This was an interesting idea - a rewriting/reimagined history combining the female Newark workers affected by radiation in the early 1900s, and the electrocution of an elephant in Coney Island which took place around the same time.

Sounds good on paper but it didn't work for me. The first part was super confusing - there were about three different narrators and too much was going on. The second part was more readable but most of my interest had been lost by then. There were glimmers of something more promising but unfortunately it all fell kind of flat in the end.
Profile Image for Crini.
352 reviews410 followers
January 24, 2018
I feel kind of bad about my rating after seeing so many raving about this, saying how tragically sad this is, but I didn't feel anything at all while reading this.

It's a typical "it's me, not you" case because the writing style wasn't for me at all and had me more confused than anything else. I just couldn't get into it and was waiting to actually feel something but I felt completely disconnected to it the events of the story from start to finish.
Profile Image for Emily.
297 reviews1,552 followers
May 3, 2018
I LOVED this.

At times the prose took a bit of effort to get through, but that's because the prose is so lush. It leaned a little heavily on consonance, but ultimately I think that served as a great metaphor. The Many Mothers (the collective memory/storytelling archetype of this story's sentient elephants) tell their stories in song, so adding a level of lyricality to the prose enhanced that aspect of the story.

I enjoyed the structure of this novella quite a bit. It's essentially told in three parts, all interwoven throughout. In one we follow a young female scientist in a modern setting who wants to convince the elephants, treated as a kind of sovereign nation, to basically guard a nuclear waste dump site. By starting the story with this element, Bolander immediately draws the reader in. We know right away what questions we should be asking, what to look out for. In a novella this short (under 100 pages), expediting that process is extremely important. We want to know, why elephants? Why are elephants associated with nuclear stuff? How does this have to do with Topsy the elephant, who is mentioned in these sections?

That brings us to the novella's second component--the recent past. This is a bit of alternate history, tweaking the stories of the real-life Radium girls (female factory workers who were told to "point" their brushes on their lips before applying radium paint to watch faces) and Topsy the elephant (a circus elephant that killed multiple people and was ultimately put to death by poison, hanging, and electrocution. Her execution was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing company). In these sections we follow a poor Radium girl who's body is slowly decaying as a result of radiation exposure on her job (I could go on and on about the use of this metaphor because DAMN). The world in which this is set has elephants that are even more sentient than the ones we know--they can work, communicate with humans, and basically exist as second class citizens. "Problem" elephants, like Topsy, are brought to work in the Radium factory after the sick girls file a lawsuit. It's a story about tragedy and exploitation and rage, and I loved it.

The third part of this book is about the "furmother" (presumably a wooly mammoth), the first of the Many Mothers. These portions are the most lyrical, the prose at times difficult to decipher but always rewarding. Here we examine strength, cunning, the power of parable, and the importance of telling stories.

I can't emphasize enough how impactful this little book is. Under 100 pages, and what a punch it packs.
Profile Image for Auntie Terror.
435 reviews103 followers
December 15, 2021
3.5 Stars
I liked the idea of mixing two historical facts (the radium girls and the electrocuted elephant) into an alternate-history nearer future setting. While I found the passages inside the mind of the elephant(s) and the strain set in the past very interesting, the story's present-day strand felt... underdeveloped.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for David.
29 reviews42 followers
March 14, 2018
The first time I read something by Brooke Bolander it was like reading a song. Not like a pop song or the song of the summer, not a love song or a ballad. More like a break up song or the blues.

Bolander reminds me of Trent Reznor and Bowie singing "Hurt." Her work's reminiscent of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," where the narrator is telling you about this man who laid bare their whole life in a song, pulling no punches, offering no flattery, highlighting mistakes and triumphs with equal abandon.

Bolander's writing is like Hemingway sung by Nina Simone. "For sale: baby shoes..." by the way of the blues. Bolander is mean, not in the GRRM I'll kill all your favorite people way. but in a pull no punches, jokes on you everyone is suffering and we're all still going down swinging kind of way. You live with her characters, you feel, with her characters. They're sick and tired and their not gonna take it anymore and you can either get on board or get out of the way.

Bolander's writing is like Hemingway sung by Nina Simone. "For sale: baby shoes..." by the way of the blues. Bolander is mean, and punches you with words and sentences to make you feel her protagonists pain.

As the summary says, this is the story of the Radium Girls and Elephants that were mistreated, lied to, and abused for capitalist gains. It's a retelling that offers a stream of conscious glance into the minds of the last Radium Girl and elephant. The narrative alternates between those two and the singularity that is the great mothers, a type of joined consciousness that represents all of the cows or female Elephants, past and present. We find out through narrative the long journey to preserve the lives and stories of the Elephants while also learning ourselves of the injustice the Radium girls are experiencing. It's a like a nesting doll of story within story telling a story about the importance of stories and its beautiful.

Some of my favorite lines were:

"Without stories there is no past, no future, no We. There is Death. There is Nothing, a night without moon or stars."

"We're scientists," Kat says. She stands. "All we do is teach people how sausage is made."

"So much for her."

For a novella this book is weighty, not something you breeze through. It's like prodding a wound or a missing tooth, reveling in that dull pain and growing stronger for it. Bolander's a writer's writer, but I think that just shows there's so much here to appreciate. The tale of the mothers being married to the historical events and the pain of the Radium girls is ambitious but she pulls it off.
Profile Image for Tori (InToriLex).
464 reviews368 followers
January 15, 2019

Content Warning: Graphic Violence, Animal Cruelty, Animal Death, Radiation Poisoning

In less than a hundred pages I fell in love with a elephant and cried for real humans I never knew. This book is a tour de force glimpse into the unforgiving way industry has poisoned people, animals and the environment in our recent past. The book follows the life of a female factory worker who is dying from radiation poison due to her work in a factory and Topsy an elephant who is being trained to continue the work that poisoned humans. In this alternative world elephants can communicate with humans and their history is kept through group story telling. Its is a tragedy told in a non-linear way with beautiful prose and memorable characters.

No matter what you did, forty  or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth's nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging alternate realities.

The magical realism and harsh reality of factory women being poisoned and dying flowed together to create a master piece. The elephant mythology completely immersed me in a world that was inhumane with too many parallels to our reality. This was a wonderful novella that pulls on your heart strings in a unique way. I am excited to read anything this author publishes in the future.

In a history book swollen tick-tight with so many injustices the poisoning of a factory if girls and the mean public death of a small god don't even register as particularly noteworthy.

Recommended for Readers who
- enjoy magical realism in science fiction
- appreciate alternative history narratives inspired by real events
- wants to read a story that will challenge them to look unflinchingly at injustice
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,671 reviews242 followers
June 16, 2019
DNF at 21%. I found this to be almost unreadable. It took me three attempts to just get past the opening paragraphs. Overly wordy and constructed.

I made the effort to find out more about the events that Bolander took and merged to make her own novelette. Links below. Utterly depressing and horrible.

That combined with the overblown prose results in this: Not my thing. Sorry.

Background of the real-life Radium Girls: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiu...

And details about the real-life elephant Topsy: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topsy...

Check out the details at Tor.com: https://publishing.tor.com/theonlyhar...
Profile Image for Joel.
556 reviews1,668 followers
May 15, 2017
Well that was a punch in the gut.
Profile Image for Jerrie.
990 reviews130 followers
December 29, 2020
This alternative history was imaginative, but ultimately there wasn’t enough here to keep me invested in the story.
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