Vicki Croke is an incredibly talented storyteller, who takes the extraordinary journey of Billy Williams and weaves it into a narrative that’s alive with the dangers, mystery, and awe of the 1920s Burma.
ELEPHANT COMPANY follows young Billy Williams who takes on the adventure of a lifetime after serving in WWI and travels to a logging colony in Burma to learn to manage and train elephants. Williams learns everything from elephant anatomy and behavior to the landscape and weather patterns of Burma. Williams was the first to use positive reinforcement as a training tool for work animals, and he single-handedly convinced his superiors to open a training program that raises its own elephants instead of using force and violence to convert wild adult elephants into working animals, believing that “separating such bonded elephants was wrong, ‘indeed cruel.'” Williams remained in Burma with his elephants during WWII, during which he saved countless of lives on the backs of these great beasts.
Croke maintains a cohesive narration richly punctuated with Williams’ own voice. She introduces his anticipation of what was to come saying, “he had feared he was ‘past the age of adventures.’ But now he gratefully realized he was wrong.'” I felt drawn to this story from the opening pages when Croke describes his love of animals and how he’d always been surrounded by them, but when he left them “to go off to boarding school, he was bereft, feeling that the separation created a ‘blank in life.'” I couldn’t think of a more apt description of the hole left by the absence of a beloved friend.
“But I have tried to establish an understanding with them, to find some common ground, some way of seeing the world through their eyes rather than my own.”
Williams great love for animals is reflected in every one of Croke’s words. She is elegantly descriptive and effortlessly presents the anatomical intricacies that make elephants so unique throughout the story. As much as the narrative itself, I enjoyed learning of their molars that weigh four pounds each and slide in as if on a conveyer belt when the old ones wear down, the number of folds falling down their ears representing their age, their four-foot long tails, and more than 60,000 muscles that make up the trunks.
Part adventure story, part romance, and part historical drama, ELEPHANT COMPANY will be a welcome read to those that love the blend of science and literature, who are fascinated by elephants and their mysterious behaviors, and are looking for a reminder that the good natured empathy of one human can have profound changes on the world.