Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Genre: Alternate History, SF
Publication date: January 23 2018
Paperback: 96 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
It is impossible to look of The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander and not think about history, about memory and about time.
In the early 20th century, a group of female factory workers’ job was to paint watch dials with self-luminous paint. They had been told that the paint was harmless and that they should use their lips to point the brushes – to save money on cleaning materials and ironically, to also save time. The paint was not harmless of course, and the women contracted radiation poisoning. They are know in history as Radium Girls.
Around the same time a baby elephant named Topsy was brought to the US from Asia and tortured all her life at the many circuses and parks where she was kept. Eventually, Topsy became violent and was gruesomely and violently put to death in a semi-public spectacle.
The Only Harmless Great Thing combines the two tragedies in an alternate history retelling that chronicles not only the lives of a couple of Radium Girls and of Topsy the elephant but also of the past and the future in a story that concerns history, radioactivity and memory keeping.
This is a novella of fragments. One that seamlessly jump back in forth in the narrative – and in time. I love this facet of The Only Harmless Great Thing: a story about a tragedy concerning dials for watches that keep time, told back and forth as time passes and looking at how the time-keeping tragedy is registered and remembered for future generations. Memory is also another aspect of it and again, playing with time and memory and record-keeping and conflating it all with elephants.
The adage says “Elephants never forget” and in this alternate storyline, this idea is extrapolated to have elephants – and specially their matriarchs, their Mothers – keep history (the Stories) alive. In here, elephants communicate directly with humans and Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls share their tragedy in wholly unexpected ways.
This novella is as succinct as it is beautiful: a snippet of times and of characters who struggle with unthinkable injustice. We better make sure to remember that one of the greatest harmful things is the forgetting.
It is impossible to think of The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander and not think about justice, about and about great, impacting storytelling.
Rating: 8 – Excellent