Mini book review: ‘The Only Harmless Great Thing,’ by Brooke Bolander

by Patty Templeton

Anemia, bone fractures, necrosis of the jaw, and death – these were common ailments of the Radium Girls – real-life women who received radiation poisoning while painting watch dials in factories with self-luminous paint. In another horrifying flash of yesteryear, Topsy the Elephant was executed via electrocution, poisoning, and strangulation live at Cooney Island while spectators watched, and Edison Manufacturing’s movie company filmed it.

Brooke Bolander smashes these two vicious American moments together in her novella, “The Only Harmless Great Thing.” What you get is a near-100 page alt-history that spans points of view and centuries. There’s the story of the Radium Girls, the sentient elephants who take over their hazardous work, and the scientist looking back on it all while searching for a way to deal with nuclear waste. It’s a gut-punching, lyrical tale of ruthless want and the exploitation of workers – be they human or beast.

If you like dark-toned fantasists similar to Chuck Wendig and Jeff VanderMeer, or stomping around your kitchen in a marvelous, muttering rage after reading a book, pick up a copy of “The Only Harmless Great Thing.”

— Patty Templeton


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