The Gentleman Recommends: Brooke Bolander – Daniel Boone Regional Library

The Gentleman Recommends: Brooke Bolander

Once you’ve exhausted all the content on dbrl.org/adults, and you’re looking for a nice single-sitting read, consider “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander. In the time it takes your butler to press your evening wear and prepare your evening snacks, you can consume the novella, perhaps with time to spare for contemplation over a succession of treats.

The Only Harmless Great Thing book cover

The novella combines two real tragedies (“The Radium Girls” and Topsy the Elephant) and adds the story of trying to prevent a third (future generations inadvertently entering radioactive land). Regan, like the real Radium Girls, is dying of cancer because her job is to paint watches with a paint that makes them glow and gives her cancer. Her bosses encourage her to use her mouth to moisten the paint brushes in order to save on time and cleaning materials. Unlike the real Radium Girls, she is trying to train Topsy the elephant to take over her job because her bosses appreciate the fact that it will take longer to give cancer to an elephant. When Topsy murders a cruel man, she is sold to a carnival so that she can be executed for the entertainment of an audience. Unlike the real Topsy, this one has a trick up her trunk.

A few decades later, in search of a plan to warn people away from radioactive places, Kat has landed on the idea using glowing elephants. So, with the aid of a translator, she tries to convince elephants to allow themselves to be made to glow so that people will see glowing elephants and decide to stay away from a place that makes elephants glow. As I’m not sure I could avoid the allure of a glowing elephant, I’m not fully on board with the plan. Though, to be fair, unlike those that live in the story’s reality, I haven’t grown up associating elephants with radiation.

This is an intense, poetic story that packs a punch that belies its page count. Here is a taste of the inside of an elephant’s head and also the novella:

“But there is no one left to tell the histories in the smoky sooty cave Men have brought her to, where the ground is grassless stone and iron rubs ankleskin to bloody fly-bait. There are others like her, swaying gray shadows smelling of We, but wood and cold metal lie between them, and she cannot see them, and she cannot touch them.”

It can be nice to spend a few pages with a sad elephant.