Book review: Elephant Company offers compelling details

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Cover of book about elephants in Burma in WWII and pre-war period

Marvelous.  For nonfiction, Vicki Croke has spun quite the yarn about Jim Williams (aka Bill Williams), elephant logging expert, and his life and times in the jungles of Burma.  Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (published in 2014) reads almost like a novel.

In 1921, Williams signs on with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as a forest assistant in the teak logging industry in Burma.  He supervises uzis who are the Burmese elephant handlers with multiple teams of elephants throughout his assigned territory.  He must contend with Harding, an older, grizzled Brit who likes giving newbies a hard time.  Williams is very sensitive to the needs of elephants and the Burmese people, often behaving more like biologist or sociologist than a corporate field manager.  He sets out to learn everything he can about elephants and their culture.  Eventually, Williams earns Harding’s respect.

Readers learn a great deal about working elephants in the process.  In Burma, the Asian elephant is domesticated up to a point—as somebody in the book suggests—domesticated for eight hours a day.  After working their shift, they go off to forage on their own and spend time with their elephant families.  In the morning they grudgingly report back to work, but seem to enjoy the cat-and-mouse relationship with their handlers.  We learn about elephant anatomy (for example, they can’t lie on their sides for long because of how their chest and lungs are configured), their habits (such as taking their time before river crossings until one female always steps forward to lead them across), but more importantly, their generosity of spirit, exhibited most vividly by Bandoola, the elephant hero of the book, who establishes a very close working relationship with Williams over the years, performing every logging and wartime assignment with enormous strength, responsiveness, and discernment.

Williams also meets a British woman, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the jungle, and they marry.  They are very compatible and both happy.  They experience hardships in the field, but like Williams, she is hale and hearty, and starts having children.

Then the war comes.  For those of you who are more interested in military history than in elephant husbandry, this book may not meet your expectations.  It takes a long time before this book gets to World War II.  When it comes, it is focused at first on the evacuation of women and children, which the elephants help with as pack animals.  The military wants to continue using elephants in that way, for hauling heavy loads during the war.  But Williams convinces them that elephants are smart enough that their skills be put to better use as master bridge builders.  That is the elephants’ primary contribution to the Allies in Burma during the war.  Do not read this book expecting a 20th century version of Hannibal’s elephant cavalry charge.  These are transport and engineering elephants, not cavalry elephants.

Croke’s respect for Williams, Bandoola, and elephants in general is evident throughout the book.  At a couple of points, the praise is laid on a bit thick, but it is difficult not come away with a similar respect for those depicted in the book.  For me, the highlight was the opportunity to learn about elephants and their interactions with humans in such fascinating detail.

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