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Book Club Kits: The Elephant Company

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Book Summary

The remarkable story of James Howard Billy Williams, whose uncanny rapport with the world s largest land animals transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill
Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a forest man for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted elephant wallah. Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant school and hospital. In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude. 
But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Elephant Bill s exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim. 
Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism. 
Praise for Elephant Company 
This book is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species. . . .Elephant Company is nothing less than a sweeping tale, masterfully written. Sara Gruen, The New York Times Book Review 
Splendid . . . Blending biography, history, and wildlife biology, Vicki Constantine] Croke s story is an often moving account of Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet Elephant Bill, and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth. The Boston Globe

Some of the biggest heroes of World War II were even bigger than you thought. . . . You may never call the lion the king of the jungle again. New York Post 
Elephant Company is as powerful and big-hearted as the animals of its title. Billy Williams is an extraordinary character, a real-life reverse Tarzan raised in civilization who finds wisdom and his true self living among jungle beasts. Vicki Constantine Croke delivers an exciting tale of this elephant whisperer cum war hero, while beautifully reminding us of the enduring bonds between animals and humans. Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time"

Discussion Questions

1. What was your first impression of this book? Did your opinion of the book change as you read it? How?

3. What did you think of the structure and style of the writing?

4. What scene was the most pivotal for the book? How do you think the story would have changed had that scene not taken place?

5. What scene resonated most with you personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?

6. What surprised you the most about the book?

7. Were there any particular quotes that stood out to you? Why?

8. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters in the story?

9. What is motivating the actions of the main characters in the story?

10. What are your thoughts about the life lessons Williams gleans from the elephants?

11. Were there any moments where you disagreed with the choices of the characters? What would you have done differently?

12. Have you read any other books by this author? How did they compare to this one?

13. What did you learn from, take away from, or get out of this book?

Author Interview

James Howard Williams was the kind of person who sounds, well, made up. A callow Englishman, he ended up working for the Bombay Burmah Teak Corporation in the 1920s, harnessing the incredible power of elephants to move logs. It didn't take long before he became completely enamored of the glorious beasts, particularly Bandoola, his beloved and trusted Tusker. Williams earned the nickname "Elephant Bill," setting up a school for humanely training elephants that would probably pass muster with the World Wildlife Fund today.

Author Vicki Constantine Croke, who specializes in nonfiction works about the animal kingdom, chronicles Williams's remarkable life in Elephant Company. It's not only a terrific portrait of the elephant man in question, but of the majestic creatures themselves. (Did you know? Allspice cures elephantine flatulence, brandy helps with upset stomachs, and their behavior "suggests they have an understanding of death, something believed to be rare among non-human animals.")

Croke spoke with Signature about Elephant Bill's amazing life, why he championed compassionate treatment of animals, her two enormous pals Emily and Ruth, and how the book gave her a wonderful lasting memory with her father.

Signature: You've had a fascinating run as a writer chronicling animals as they play roles in history. How did your career develop? Which came first – the writer, or the animal lover?

VICKI CONSTANTINE CROKE: My entire career has been one big excuse for patting animals. I was born this way. As a child, I read every animal book I could get my hands on, and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall. A life in the field became unrealistic for me when I was diagnosed with lupus as a teenager. But, the good news is that my lupus went into remission before I even left high school. I decided to be a writer in college, and, ultimately, I think that writing about all kinds of animal issues suits me much better than studying one species in the wild.

SIG: The footnotes for Elephant Company are some fifty pages long. Where did you first come across the story, and what was the research process like?

VCC: In a book called Elephant by Dan Wylie  (it's part of a nice animal series from Reaktion Books), I saw a little illustration that depicted an elephant and rider on a ledge high up on a cliff face. The caption read "J.H. Williams escapes from Burma with his elephants in 1943…" And I thought, "I want to know more about that." I only realized halfway through writing Elephant Company that an excerpt from J.H. Williams's memoir had been included in a treasury of animal stories I had as a child.

SIG: One of the great things about the book is that it's both a biography of a fascinating person and a thorough and intriguing look at elephants (their understanding of death, in particular). In the beginning, how much did you know about elephants, and how did your view of the majestic creatures evolve?

VCC: Because I've been covering animal issues for decades, I knew quite a bit about elephants (one of my favorite books on the topic is Katy Payne's Silent Thunder). What I felt I really needed to make this book come alive was day-to-day interaction with real elephants. I was lucky enough to be invited by Dr. William Langbauer, then the director of the Buttonwood Park Zoo here in Massachusetts, to meet the two Asian elephants under his care. Emily and Ruth are such amazing characters. True story: Ruth was rescued from a garbage dump where she had been abandoned. For two years, videographer Christen Goguen and I spent a day every other week being tutored by these grand girls. We knew them and they knew us. We saw their intelligence, humor, and kindness up close. We recorded their vocalizations and learned to read their moods. It was a remarkable gift. One day, a keeper stood on a ladder at the gate that led into the elephant exhibit. He was replacing a bolt that Emily had unscrewed and removed using her trunk. As fast as he could replace that bolt, Emily started unscrewing the others near it. She was definitely joking with him.

SIG: Billy Williams is an amazing subject – a stranger-than-fiction type of guy. Can you give us a sense of who he was?

VCC: "Elephant Bill" really was larger than life. We are all a bundle of paradoxes, and he had some interesting contradictions: he was both a sensitive loner and a confident adventurer. He had an outsized sense of fairness to other people and a mystical connection to animals. He was hard-working, honest, and full of energy.

SIG: Burma plays a major role in Elephant Company. How would you describe the country's impact on the story?

VCC: Bill Williams's story is so deeply tied to that setting, especially the remote nature of the land. The country was cut off from the world by a horseshoe of mountains at its top half and an ocean at the bottom. Mountains, thick forest, and wide rivers make it difficult to travel through. And in 1920, when Williams arrived, it was teeming with wild animals – tigers, leopards, elephants, monkeys, and three species of rhino.

BIOG: Williams's Elephant School seems way ahead of its time in terms of its humane treatment of animals. Can you explain his role in developing it?

VCC: When Williams joined the ranks of the Bombay Burmah Teak Corporation, an army of elephants was used to move the massive teak logs to waterways. The standard practice at the time was to purchase teen-aged elephants from brokers. These brokers captured wild animals and broke them in the most brutal ways – beating and starving them, leaving them in stockades in the hot sun without water. At the same time, little calves born in captivity suffered high mortality rates, since their mothers were forced by their working schedules to be neglectful. Williams wanted to change that. Working with a visionary master mahout named Po Toke, he showed his bosses that saving calves wasn't just humane, it was economical. When the calves born in captivity grew, they would make better working animals, and expensive elephants would not have to be purchased from brokers.

SIG: Williams seemed to anthropomorphize elephants to a large degree. Are elephants as intelligent as he believed them to be, or did he do a fair amount of projecting?

VCC: I found Williams to be quite accurate in his observations of elephants. Much of what he observed and recorded in their behavior and biology would be validated by modern scientists decades later.  I don't think he's terribly guilty of much anthropomorphism!

SIG: As a reader, the elephants really take on a life of their own. What was it like relating to them as a researcher and a writer?

VCC: The elephants of Bill Williams's life were among the strongest characters I've ever gotten to know. I shed tears for some of them even though they are long dead. The elephant calf "Guide Man" and his blind mother, in particular, made me weep.

SIG: Williams comes across as a fairly social fellow, but he was basically alone in the jungle for a long stretch in his life, at least romantically. Do you think the elephants served as a surrogate family for him?

VCC: The elephants were his coworkers, family, and friends. He always said that he learned to be a better man by being in their company and learning from them. He also said that the lonely life in the jungle would have been impossible to bear without them.

SIG: I'm no WWII buff, so I had no idea that Burma played such a major role in the Pacific Theater. Why was it so important strategically and so dangerous for soldiers, civilians, and animals alike?

VCC: The men who fought in the Fourteenth Army in Burma during WWII are often called "the forgotten army." They were overlooked by the world in many ways. They fought the longest campaign of the entire war and had to deal not just with the enemy, but the brutality of the terrain, weather, and disease.

SIG: Elephant Company became Williams's greatest achievement. What was it, and how did it help the Allied cause?

VCC: Williams's elephants were able to move the army across harsh terrain that even mules couldn't get through. Burma was a country with very little infrastructure. The elephants' biggest contribution was building simple, sturdy "elephant bridges" over the network of creeks and rivers that men and machines had to cross.

SIG: Near the end, Elephant Company becomes a heroic escape story. Was that as thrilling to research and write as it was to read? I know I'll never forget the phrase "elephant stairway."

VCC: I loved every aspect of the research and writing – from his first contact with the elephants, through his deepening knowledge of them and ultimate bond with them. Williams's rescue of sixty-four refugees across five mountain ranges from Burma to India with his elephants hinged on a single, miraculous moment when the animals trusted him enough to scale a sheer cliff face modified with stone steps.

SIG: While finishing Elephant Company, I realized it's an epic love story – a Shakespearean tragedy, if you will, between Elephant Bill Williams and his beloved tusker, Bandoola. Do you see it that way?

VCC: I think of them as twins – one human, one elephant. They were born in the same month, in the same year, and had a unique bond. Both were tall, well built, and blessed with remarkable stamina. I would say they both possessed an enormous amount of courage, integrity, and even humor.

SIG: Tell us a little bit about your radio show, WBUR's The Wild Life, and what it allows you to do that book writing doesn't.

VCC: Thanks to the show, Christen Goguen and I have been able to accompany a rescued 200-pound loggerhead turtle on a private plane from Boston down to the coast of Georgia; to meet an injured snowy owl in his fight cage; and to study the fascinating world of the spotted hyena – a species in which females have pseudo-penises but also make great mothers. I love the focus of writing books, but also the variety of general animal reporting.

SIG: There's been a rash of articles about killing elephants, like "Save the Elephants" in the New Yorker and "Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?" in GQ. And then there were the photos of a Texas Tech cheerleader and her prey that burned up the internet. What can be done before it's too late, and elephants become extinct?

VCC: There is so much that can be done, and we have such remarkable field biologists, conservationists, and even some terrific politicians working on it. I've never heard my friends in conservation sounding so militant before. As Alan Rabinowitz recently said to me – the fight to save wild animals is nothing short of an anti-terrorism campaign.

SIG: Lastly, how did it feel to have Elephant Company on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and to get a glowing appraisal?

VCC: That review was something every author dreams of getting, and I am grateful for every word. I was particularly touched by Sara Gruen's remarkable understanding of elephants and the bonds they can form with people. Also for me, there was another poignant dimension: My beloved father was able to read that review in the days before he died and to use up his last bits of strength to express his pride to me. That is a gift beyond measure.