Disclaimer: Digital ARC provided via Random House and Netgalley.
I can think of no higher praise than pointing out that after finishing this book, I ordered two other Croke books. Unless, the praise is that this book made me actually happy that the bus broke down because I could finish it.
But I suppose, people want something more, so here it goes.
Elephant Company tells the story of Billy Williams, a British man who after the Great War travels to Burma to work for a teak company. This means months in the jungle facing illness, leaches, and lack of reading material. Williams does have something going for him, however.
He loves animals.
When he meets his first Asian elephants, it is, for him at least, instant animal love. While Williams loves all types of animals – dogs, cats, and donkeys – it is the elephant that he studios, learns about, understands, and defends. The elephants themselves seem to pick up on this, and over time Williams is allowed to do things to elephants that most other people would be tusked for.
While divided into various sections, the book is basically two halves. The first half details Williams’ work in Burma pre-World War II, tracing in brief his boyhood England as well. The charm in the first half is not only the story of Williams but the amazing amount of detail given concerning elephant behavior. Williams kept journals and notebooks. Croke draws on these and uses her source material well. When Williams says it better, she quotes him. His illustrations of elephants accompany the stories of the elephant he meets. For instance, there is a mother whose son acts as her guide dog.
But the first section is more than simply a study of elephants or a journal of a teak company worker. In part, it is the development of a man from a British company officer to something more. Perhaps the best known story about elephants and Burma is Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, an essay in which the famous author examines why he was moved to shot an elephant. Croke’s portrayal of Williams is a counterpoint to this. Not only does Williams develop distaste for hunting, but he also spearheads the development of an elephant school. The first half, therefore, is part a story about the development of an elephant campaigner.
You would think this would make the first half of the book dull. It isn’t. The prose is beautiful, the illustrations chosen well. The reader makes discoveries about elephants alongside Williams himself. It almost reads a detective novel.
If the first half of the book is a detective novel, the second half is the Great Escape with elephants. Williams and his family are caught in Burma when the Japanese invaded during World War II. Williams, with his pregnant wife Susan, helps to shepherd a group of evacuees. Then he starts an elephant company that will not only build bridges for Allied Forces, but that will also help ferry Karens (a minority group) away from the Japanese. It is the story of this trek, including the use of mind boggling elephant steps that somehow brings to mind McQueen’s daredevil motorcycle ride in the movie The Great Escape.
Of course, the elephants climbing the steps is actually a true story – not a fictionalized account of a true story.
I cannot thank Random House enough for letting me read this wonderful book. It is absolutely wonderful. If you loved elephants before, this is a must read. If you are interested in history, this is a must read – and then you will love elephants.