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Book Review: Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley

Close-up of an elephant's eyeSummary:
When Far Stream is still a young elephant in the late 1800s, not yet full grown and learning from her mother, aunties, and grandmother, humans trap and capture her and other members of her herd.  She is shipped to America and sold to a traveling circus.  Over the years, she slowly comes to be known as a bad elephant who must be put down.  But is she really bad?

Review:
I was quite excited when this book was submitted to me for review.  A piece of historic fiction from the perspective of an animal, focusing on animal rights problems in the circus? Such a perfect fit!  This is a well-researched and written piece of historic fiction that eloquently depicts the minds of elephants as similar to and yet different from those of humans.

The book opens with a scene of a so-called bad elephant about to be executed.  The humans state they are doing so humanely and nothing can be done because the elephant has gone rogue and killed too many  humans.  The book then flashes back to see the elephant’s life from the elephant’s perspective, leaving it up to the reader to determine if the elephant is actually bad.  The humans calls her Topsy, but her elephant name is actually Far Stream.  What follows in the flashback is a delicately handled and clearly exquisitely researched tale of the life of a circus elephant in the late 1800s in the US.

From the beginning, the author makes it clear that elephants are intelligent, with lives, families, and emotions of their own.  Quite a bit of this is backed up by science, such as elephants crying and also mourning dead members of the herd.  There are also those who think that elephants might communicate via sign language and/or telepathically, and the book fully embraces both ideas.  What results in telling this tale from the elephant’s perspective is a scene of one intelligent species enslaved by another that is heartbreaking to read.  What really makes the story work, though, is that the author strikes the perfect balance between showing the horror of being a circus elephant and also not fully demonizing humans.  There are good humans (trainers and non-trainers) who love the elephants and treat them well but simply do not understand that elephants are more intelligent and have a richer emotional life than they give them credit for and by simply keeping them away from the roaming herd life they were made for they are hurting them.

Everything about the circus in the late 1800s in the US was clearly thoroughly researched by the author.  The historic setting and ways of life flow smoothly and fit perfectly within the plot.  They are presented simply as reality without any unfortunate modern commentary or forcing of unnaturally modern ideas into the plot.  Reading this book truly transported me back in time, and it was fascinating and enjoyable, as well as heartbreaking.

Although the reader knows from the beginning that Far Stream will be executed, how she gets there is still a mystery and is handled delicately enough that the plot has momentum.

The one bit that didn’t really work for me is how the book presents what appears to be elephant spirituality.  There is one scene where Far Stream and another elephant appear to hallucinate, and it is never entirely clear what actually happened.  Similarly the ending goes to an odd spiritual place that just left me confused, rather than in the strong emotional state I was in the moments immediately prior to this.  I found the elephant spirituality bits to be a touch confusing that lessened the emotional strength of the rest of the book, which came across much more matter-of-fact.  Some readers may enjoy and relate to the spiritual aspect more than I did, however.

Overall, this is a piece of thoroughly researched historic fiction with a smooth moving plot and an empathetic, well-rounded main character.  It clearly demonstrates how animals humans once thought were less intelligent and less emotional than we now know them to be came to be mistreated, setting up a precedent for that mistreatment that to some extent continues to this day.  Highly recommended to readers who enjoy historic fiction and animal main characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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