Hannah is the merchandising manager at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC. She is a lover of dead white guy lit, a recovering theatre kid, and holds degrees in several unemployable, massively satisfying humanities. She will find a bookstore or a tea shop within the first hour of every trip. Follow her on Twitter @OliverDepp.
Something happens around middle school when you read about animals who talk. It stops making sense. It becomes childish, jarring, or even seems cheap. Perhaps it is that your books have gradually begun to phase out the talking beasts and have replaced them with human monsters. Perhaps it is because you have now studied basic science and know roughly that while animals communicate in many ways, standing in their hind legs in waist coats over tea probably isn’t one of them. I think this is terrible.
As adults when we read a piece of good writing that takes us into the mind of an animal, we are wary and watchful for that inauthenticity of voice. We may consciously not want to fall prey to childish fancy again. But more likely, we do want to be swept away, but into the animal’s world instead of convincing ourselves that the animal belongs in ours. What this looks like, though, isn’t so simple. I find myself constantly frustrated when trying to discuss “good” books with animals as dominant characters. One of my friends calls any book that dominantly features animals “Horse Books.” He has the succinct dismissal while I fumble to explain how the book makes you smell like an elephant or feel like a bee. It never fails, however, that people who may put down the Black Beauty(s) of the world also read Jack London or Moby-Dick with religious fever. And this keeps me wondering about this desire for authenticity and greatness in these talking beast or animal-centric books. I certainly measure books featuring animals to the treasure that is Watership Down. While those animals were certainly humanized, they never felt like simple stand-ins or a cheap way of getting around race, class, or having to draw fingers. Rather, due to the essential animalness of those rabbits I learned what humanity is and isn’t. But though transporting myself back to childhood is one of the pleasures of reading, I thought it was disappointing not to find animals used more creatively, or even bravely, in most adult literature.
Recently, two different books brought the animal back to the world of adult reading for me. While none of them feature a cast of animals explaining humanity, I think they help build my case for keeping the animal in our minerals, er, manuscripts.
I loved The Tusk that Did the Damage, a tale of poachers, do-gooders, and rulers in India and what they do to elephants. The best character is Gravedigger, the elephant whose mind we inhabit as he seeks revenge on the poachers who pick off his family and then gently buries his dead. The balance of harm he inflicts and care Gravedigger bestows, his intelligence and his mythos, help me understand everything from the hurt of great characters in history to the pangs of loss in my everyday.
But my favorite from this year is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. This memoir investigates what an animal can do in our lives, how the relation to the primal can restore our broken selves. Macdonald finds her way back into humanity after the death of her father not only by raising a hawk, but by examining the life of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, one of the most talking animal books of all time. She learns to see the world a little more like her hawk does and her humanity, ripped from her by loss, begins to return as her understanding of this bird of prey grows. As I write this my dog chews on a bone and turns his head at invisible noises. This muggy night in DC becomes filled with insects, footfalls, and possibility. My fluffy dog Buster is no hawk, but no book of my life would be complete without his point of view.
Editor’s note: The setting of The Tusk That Did the Damage was corrected from Africa to India.
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