“The Many Mothers have memories longer than stone. They remember how it came to pass, how their task was set and why no other living creature may enter the mountain. It is a truce with the Dead, and the Many Mothers are nothing less than the Memories of the Dead, the sum total of every story ever told them.
At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose”
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a story of cancer, a story of martyrdom, a story of stories. It’s about love of community, love of family, and righteous anger at those who would destroy those two precious things. It’s the story of a dying woman and the elephant who tried to stop humanity from killing one another for profit. It’s beauty in prose and pain.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the Radium Girls, I highly recommend at least glancing through the Wikipedia page prior to starting this novel. The Radium Girls worked for a company called the Radium Dial Company, where they labored in a factory painting watch dials with glowing paint containing – you guessed it – radium. The higher-ups of the company, well aware of the dangers of radium, used lead gloves and shields to avoid breathing in even trace amounts of the paint. The girls were told ingesting radium was good and healthy for them; in order to paint the fine lines needed for the watches, they were instructed to “point” the brushes using their lips. Believing it harmless, many used the radium to paint their faces, nails, etc. All of them died of cancer. Slowly. It starts with a loose tooth. A pain in the jaw. Loose joints and a generalized ache in their body. Soon, her face might begin to rot.
“They’ve crammed Jodie between a moaning old mawmaw with rattling lungs and an unlucky lumber man who tried to catch a falling pine tree with his head. What’s left of her jaw is so swathed with stained yellow-and-red gauze she half-takes after one of those dead pyramid people over in Egypt-land. Regan’s smelled a lot of foulness in her short span of doing jobs nobody else wants to touch, but the roadkill-and-rotting-teeth stink coming up off those bandages nearly yanks the cheese sandwich right out of her stomach.”
In this alternate timeline, elephants are sentient and capable of communication with humans using a form of trunk sign-language. Their thoughts are poetic, their culture based on the herd, the family, and the concept of “We” instead of “I.” Due to the public outcry against The Radium Dial Company, all the remaining (dying) girls are sent home… except for one, who is kept to train the elephants to take the girls’ place in the factory.
The elephants have a rich culture and history, and Bolander isn’t afraid to let that shine through in her prose. It is strange, alien, and above all, beautiful. The great matriarchs are filled with stories. They are filled with anger at the situation. They sing of freedom and revenge. They are filled with sadness and pity for the poor, poor things called humans which have no concept of “We” and kill one another needlessly. The contrast between the two parallel stories is striking, as is the small measure of “We” both the human and elephantine characters manage to find in one another in their last moments before going out in a blaze of glory as martyrs for their brothers and sisters still being harmed by Radium Dial.
“Every day she eats the reeking, gritty poison. The girl with the rotten bones showed her how, and occasionally Men come by and strike her with words and tiny tickling whip-trunks if she doesn’t work fast enough. She feels neither. She feels neither, but a rage buzzes in her ear low and steady and constant, a mosquito she cannot crush. Like a calf she nurses the feeling. Like the calf she’ll never Mother she protects it safe in her belly, safe beneath the vast bulk of Herself, while every day it grows, suckles, frolics between her legs and around the stall and around the stall and around the stall until she’s whirling red behind the eyes where the Stories should go.
One day soon the rage will be tall enough to reach the high-branch mangoes.
Okay? the rotten-bone-dead-girl signs. Okay? Are you okay?”
This is a short novella at only 93 pages, yet not one to miss. This is a story that requires a bit of time to digest before you’re ready to move on from it. I recommend settling in for an evening to read this in one sitting, followed up by some time with tea and a cozy blanket afterwards to mull over the story and allow the melancholy time to fade to a dull ache for the girls who were sacrificed in the pursuit of capitalism.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is painful, fragile, and shining.