"'Well, son, this was no ordinary elephant. It is said that one in every ten thousand elephants is special... very special. They have something happening in their heads. Something we humans wouldn't understand, but they know the ways of Man.'"
Just in time for April Fool's Day, our latest book review.
On a winter day in Germany at the dawn of the last century, circus trainer Josef Gunterstein had the best day ever. Not only did his wife give birth to a long-prayed for baby boy, Bram, but Emma, his star attraction elephant, delivered a calf - a female named "Modoc." Modoc, told by veteran animal trainer Ralph Helfer, is the story of those two children, raised as siblings, and the life they shared. Bram is born to train elephants and Modoc is born to be a circus star. Their bond is meant to be a life-long one, and nothing - not cruel circus owners, not murderous terrorists, and not even a sinking ship can keep the two apart for long.
Okay... about all of that.
If Modoc were to be presented to the reader as fiction - something along the lines of Life of Pi - I would have been okay with it. No, the writing isn't very good, but that can be excused - Mr. Helfer isn't a professional author, he's a man conveying a story about a topic that he is passionate about. Sure, the dialect is sappy sweet, sure there are more ridiculous coincidences in one chapter than in all of Shakespeare's plays, and sure, it's downright predictable at times, but it's a story... right?
The thing is, Helfer bills it as a true story (while acknowledging some poetic license). That's what ticks me off.
My first suspicion came with the tiny handful of photographs in the center of the book. None of them seemed to match up to the Modoc of the story. Modoc was supposed to be enormous. None of the elephants pictured looked particularly big (I mean, for an elephant). Modoc was supposed to be scarred from various misadventures over her globe-spanning career. I didn't see any scarring. Most telling, none of the elephants pictured had tusks. Now, unlike African elephants, female Asian elephants very rarely have visible tusks, but Helfer's book mentions on a few occasions that Modoc had huge tusks, tusks that were decorated for the circus shows, tusks that enabled her to perform marvelously as a logging elephant in the teak forests of Burma while she was on the run with Bram. So what happened to them? The lives of other circus elephants, most notably Jumbo, are far better documented than Modoc... and Jumbo lived decades before Modoc. Why isn't their more of a paper trail, or photographs?
They more I read Modoc, the more curious I became and I tried looking into her story. The only references I could find all came back to Helfer's book. Sure, I did come across a few "Modocs" out there - "Big Modoc", 'Little Modoc", "One-Eyed Modoc", and I began to suspect that "Modoc" was a compilation of these elephants. Nor could I find much about Bram Gunterstein, but that I could at least sort of understand. Being a German Jewish immigrant, I suppose it's possible that he spent the years around World War II quietly under the radar. But other details don't add up. In their old age, Bram receives a letter from a man he met in South Asia while he was a youth. The letter-writer was an older man when they first met, which would have made him incredibly ancient at the time of his supposed correspondence.
I'm not nearly as informed about the history of circuses as I am about zoos and aquariums, so I reached out to colleagues who are. The reaction to inquiries about Modoc has been, uniformly, an eye-roll and a shrug.
I can understand the Ralph Helfer has strong feelings about animal training. He himself appears towards the end of the book as an Angel of Mercy of sorts. He may want to use a book to tell a story about trainers and their charges. He should. Stories are excellent educational tools; again, Life of Pi is an excellent story that teaches the reader much about zoos (And animal training. And religion. Not so much about seafaring). But trying to pass off something as a true story when it is not, as I suspect is the case here, is a distraction, and comes with a cost of credibility. As such, I'm going to have to put Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, back on the fiction shelf.