by Samuel Hawley
The life of a circus elephant. Far Stream, given many different names later in life, was captured and taken by force from her forest home in Asia. Separated from her family, shipped across the ocean, she spent thirty years learning routines and performing for peoples\’ amusement. This sad and disturbing book details what it might be like to lead such a life- from the elephant\’s viewpoint. The confusing lessons on unnatural dancing and balancing acts- beaten into them by force. The long hours standing in confinement, in chains, in railway cars, in stables. Being teased and poked and stared at by thousands of strangers. Expected to accept everything mutely and submit endlessly. It\’s no wonder some of them \”went bad\”, and this particular elephant, called Topsy near the end of her shortened life, did just that. Simmering resentment built up during long years of bad treatment and idle torment lashed out just a few times, and she was sentenced to death, deemed too dangerous to keep. Done by triple means- poison, hanging and electrocution with over six thousand volts, orchestrated by Thomas Eddison himself (who probably wanted the publicity), her death was a spectacle in itself.
Distressing as all this is, for me the most poignant parts of the book were reading about her distant memories of the forest, the physical sensations she would dream away into, removing herself from current boredom and misery. Or the one moment she actually escaped and roamed the countryside for a week, finally realizing she couldn\’t find enough food to keep alive, she missed the company of other circus elephants, even the reassurance of familiar routine and human direction. It was a sad reminder of how used to this travelling life she had become, how dependent on the people who enslaved her. There\’s so much more to this book- the way circuses were run, the constant changing hands, being rented out for events and such. The danger of male elephants- eventually Far Stream saw most of them disappear from the circus tents, as people realized they were just too much liability. How things changed over the decades- the first few troupes she was with journeyed by horse-pulled wagons, later it was all by rail. She survived quite a few derailments, witnessed or experienced many kinds of accidents as well.
It\’s all based on actual accounts of circus elephants, most of the incidents in the book are purportedly true although of course the details have been re-imagined. They feel very authentic- the author\’s notes at end of the book list numerous sources that I bet are rich reading in themselves. Even the way the author chose to portray how the elephants communicated among themselves with contact calls, reassurances or moments of humor, how they felt each others\’ emotions and shared memories, didn\’t feel contrived to me (as it did to some extent in The White Bone). It felt like the way things could be. Most of all I felt sad at the complexity, intelligence and patience of these great animals that were often treated so inhumanely, for so long.
I received a copy of this book from the author, via a giveaway at Opinions of a Wolf. Thanks to them.
Rating: 4/5 263 pages, 2013