The Big Idea: Brooke Bolander
I taught Brooke Bolander at the 2011 Clarion Writing Workshop, and while I would dearly like to claim credit for her development into an amazing writer, in fact the talent was always there. It comes to a fruition in the novella The Only Harmless Great Thing; here is Bolander to explain how radium and elephants and fable have all come together in this remarkable story.
So, here’s a thing to think about the next time you get an itch in your getalong to ask a writer where they get their ideas from. Cool ideas for stories? They’re frickin’ everywhere. They live in science journals and history books. They’re written on sidewalks and subway cars and the faces of people waiting at crosswalks. Every single human being you push past on your way to grab a cup of coffee has a past that is a chain of potentially fascinating stories. We live in an age of unfettered, recklessly spewing information. The Internet is a cool idea fire hose that never, ever shuts off.
All of this is a very rambly, long-winded and onion-on-my-belt way of saying that the seed for The Only Harmless Great Thing came from a random comment on Twitter.
Mystical. How on earth do we do it?
Twitter is a lot of things. It’s a terrible distraction. Sometimes it’s just terrible, full stop. It’s also a great place to gather ideas, because when you throw that many disparate minds together and let them chatter like coked parakeets, you’re gonna come up with some wild stuff. It was 2013, so things were not, shall we say, quite as fraught as they’ve become in recent years. There was a lot more shooting the shit and a lot less dodging it as it was flung at our heads via government-issued trebuchet.
Another writer friend of mine, the talented and lovely Helena Bell, posted a poll asking what she should write about next. There were several choices, but the two I remember (for reasons that will soon become evident) were elephants and radium poisoning. I think painting might have been a choice as well, but again, this was in 2013. Recollections of the intervening years in my head look like they were drawn in crayon by Susie, Age 4. I’m pretty sure I rode a velociraptor to my job down at the Unicorn Fart factory back then.
“Why not combine both?” I said. And then, as ominous Foley board thunder crashed: “Wait, shit. Why don’t I combine both?”
Because in the moment it took to type that sentence fragment, my brain had just smashed two clown cars together to create a compressed, bloody, honking rainbow cube of a story idea. Figuring out which floppy shoe went to what polka-dotted limb would take a hell of a lot longer, but there it sat, composed of two terrible pieces of American history my subconscious had immediately (and disturbingly quickly) dredged up from the depths.
The story of elephants in the good ol’ US of A is, like the histories of many things in the good ol’ US of A, really, really depressing. The first, Old Bet, arrived from Calcutta in 1796 and toured with a circus for 21 years before being shot to death in 1816 by a farmer who thought charging townsfolk fees to gawk at an animal was ’sinful’. That pretty much set the tenor for the next couple hundred years of American/elephantine relations. Elephants were tortured, abused, and made to perform tricks and tasks until the stress broke their incredibly sensitive minds, at which point a rampage often ensued, humans died, and the elephant was shot to death, poisoned, or, on one horrifically memorable occasion, lynched. With the advent of electricity came a new and novel way to snuff the rebels out. A killer elephant in Georgia named Daisy was almost the first, but she was spared only to be shot to death by local police after breaking free to finish what she had started, namely Killing All Humans.
Which brings us to Topsy, who you may know about if only because of that one episode of Bob’s Burgers. Like Old Bet and Daisy before her, Topsy was a circus elephant driven to viciousness by cruel handlers and years of abuse. Her one confirmed kill involved a man burning the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar stub. Her owners sold her to the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she helped haul lumber and building materials for awhile until a handful of incidents involving a drunken trainer convinced management she was too much of a liability to keep. Her execution by electrocution in 1903 was recorded by a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and distributed under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. Contrary to popular legend, Thomas Edison appears to have had little to do with Topsy’s death; he was a notorious asshole for a lot of reasons you can read about elsewhere, but this time he was more or less blameless. Topsy wasn’t a victim of the Current Wars, which had more or less petered out some thirteen years earlier. She was simply the latest and most visible victim in a long and cruel system that had been exploiting her kind for centuries.
But the Edison name and the eerily silent footage of her slowly toppling, smoke billowing from her hide, would be enough to keep Topsy in the public memory for years to come.
So much for the elephant part of the equation. My brain has an encyclopedic knowledge of sad animal stories from history. One of my previous short stories involved Laika, so this wasn’t exactly a new development. An upcoming work involves Benjamin, the last thylacine, and it will hopefully complete the triptych so I can go off and write about happy people drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate under big fluffy duvets for a change.
The radium craze and the horrific story of the Radium Girls was something I already knew about, but I’m a history major, I know about a lot of things I’m later shocked to learn aren’t common public knowledge. In this case, the fact that more people don’t know that an entire factory of women were more or less poisoned to death by their employers within the lifetime of their grandparents makes me want to burn everything down with cleansing fire. Since arson charges are tricky and prison blows, I decided to write a book about it instead.
After the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it didn’t take long for the element to become a wonder additive applied to everything from soaps and chocolate to condoms. It was radioactive—nobody was quite sure what that meant yet, but it sounded pretty cool in marketing slogans—and when mixed with certain other phosphorescent dyes it made a paint that glowed a faint green in the dark. The advent of World War I and the dark, dirty business of trench warfare meant there was a suddenly a ready market for wrist watches with glowing dials that could be easily read at night. Factories were opened to keep up with demand, and girls were hired to paint them. It was, by the standards of the early 20th century, a clean, desirable job: You were working with an element that was said to be great for your health, it paid fairly well, and the paint was fun to work with. The girls would paint their teeth with it. Their skin glittered and glowed faintly from free-floating paint particulate in the air; they nicknamed them the ‘Shining Girls’ because of this. So long as you kept up your quota of dials painted each day, you were just fine. The fastest girls quickly learned how to ‘tip’ the paint brushes with their lips, bringing the bristles to a fine point. It meant swallowing a lot of paint, but again, for the past thirty years radium had been marketed as a cure for cancer, herpes, indigestion, and pretty much anything else that might conceivably make a quick buck.
Behind the scenes, the scientists manufacturing the paint wore heavy protective gear and were warned about the potential dangers of working with the stuff. The girls on the factory floor weren’t so lucky. The ones with worries were soothed, shushed, and reassured of their safety. Why? Because it was cheaper and more efficient to simply not tell them about the potential side effects, and ‘cheaper and quicker’ has always given capitalists a boner roughly the size of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. What they didn’t know wouldn’t slow the worker’s productivity. Why bother stirring the pot?
Until the girls at last began to sicken and die.
Even that didn’t put the brakes on management, at first. They blamed it on other things. They implied that the girls were contracting syphilis, in the time-honored and ever-ready tradition of the Whores Had It Coming. When a state safety inspector wrote a scathing report about the dangerous conditions at one of the factories, a massive cover-up ensued (it took a woman to eventually blow the lid off). Meanwhile, girls were still falling ill in rapidly growing numbers. Lawsuits came later, and trials, but the wheels of justice move glacially. By the time all was said and done and settlements paid, years had passed. Most of the Radium Girls were already dead.
The factories shuttered. Memories faded. The world moved swiftly on.
Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Sixteen years separated the death of Topsy and the employment of the first Radium Girls at a factory in Orange, New Jersey, making their stories more or less of a similar vintage. A little girl could have hypothetically been at Coney Island on that fateful January day as a toddler and grown up to wield a brush at U.S. Radium. All of them died for profit, to save their bosses an extra dollar and to make some in the bargain. Animals and women were considered expendable.
The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I felt that these stories somehow needed to be told together. From an offhand comment on Twitter, something vicious was simmering.
It took another three years for the story to take a shape I was satisfied with, and by that time other things had been rolled up in my story Katamari: the history of uranium, the ongoing project to leave a marker for future generations warning of buried nuclear waste, the history of Coney Island itself. 2016 blew through like a shit hurricane and left me with even more to stew over. I thought a lot about history, how it’s perceived and how it truly is and who gets to tell the narratives that become the memories that become culture. I thought about it as a living, breathing thing that shimmies and shakes and causes ripples that often belie those carefully crafted narratives. I mulled over poison in the ground and in the marrow; how often we forget, the terrible lies we tell ourselves and are told for comfort’s sake. I thought about the ways in which capitalism exploits us, and what we have to gain when we come together in solidarity to fight. And I thought about women—women’s stories, women’s friendships, women’s anger.
I finally sat down and wrote the book very late in 2016. It took me two weeks. It involves an alternate timeline (maybe even an alternate universe) where elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever? They can speak with sign language, but are not listened to. They can express themselves, but are still more or less slaves of man.
In the aftermath of the Radium Girls incident, circus elephants are bought on the cheap and put to use painting watch dials, being big enough to take a lot of radium before they die and expendable enough that nobody really cares. One of the elephants is Topsy. A factory girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of the job that has sentenced her to a miserable lingering death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things go from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.
Also there are wooly mammoth folk tales of the Furmother and an post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because this is a deeply weird little puzzle box of a book. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, or that it’ll be your thing. It’s probably not an airport read. The language can be fiddly (I dig fiddly) and there are three different timelines & numerous POVs to spool up in your brainmeats. There’s every chance it might seem as tangly as Christmas lights upon first read.
But it’s short, and it’s angry, and it’s the book I needed to write, turns out, although I didn’t know that back in 2013 when Twitter initially lobbed those acorns at my head. We can only tell the stories we’re capable of telling and hope against hope they reach the people who need them the most. My dearest wish is that The Only Harmless Great Thing finds its people, and that maybe one of you will be one of them.