Saturday, February 7, 2015

Modoc: the True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer


I had high hopes for this book -- what's not to love about elephants?  And the "true story" of an amazing elephant and his lifelong friendship with a trainer?  Well, it would be amazing, if it were, in fact, all true.  But sadly, not so much.

This book out pretty interesting, with a fairly good narrative.  Basically, it's the story of a young boy, Bram, who was raised with a circus elephant, and spent most of his life with her throughout fantastic events -- both wonderful and tragic -- around the globe.  There are ocean voyages, a shipwreck, mystical encounters in faraway lands, bandits, benevolent royalty, wars -- you name it.

But as I read this amazing narrative -- complete with dialogue, which is always slightly suspect in a book that's reporting elements of years ago -- I was slightly put off by the writing and its insider knowledge of people's thoughts and feelings.  And a lot of the events are so fantastic that they just don't ring true.  Plus, this story is oddly lacking in concrete details.  For starters, the date of this miraculous birth is never mentioned -- not even the year!  The reader can only assume that it is sometime in the early part of the 20th century.  In fact, there's not an actual date mentioned in the entire book.  The more I read this book, the more it started to feel like a fable or fantastic folk tale, not nonfiction.

Since I am a curious person (and because I spend far too much time surfing the internet) after I finished the book, I began Googling for actual facts.  It quickly became obvious that Ralph Helfer studied at the James Frey School of Nonfiction Writing -- that is, playing pretty fast and loose with the facts.  Modoc seems like an amalgamation of a lot of different stories, different elephants, etc.

If Helfer had just said the story was inspired by actual events, I might have bought it -- the story, though flawed and over-the-top, would probably have found some satisfied readers.  But the fact that he's trying to pass this as a TRUE STORY is just so irritating, it's really taken away from the experience of reading the book. (The fact that it is listed as nonfiction by the library is just eye-rolling).

I really need to be a little more discerning when I choose nonfiction.  I did take another look at the Goodreads reviews for the rest of the books on my TBR Pile Challenge List, which is all nonfiction, and it seems like those that aren't memoirs are fairly respected -- there are obviously some aren't necessarily universally loved, but they actually have footnotes, indices, and/or bibliographies.

Memoirs are another story altogether.  If an author states at the beginning, that basically, this is how I remember this incident, or that certain characters or events may have been combined, I might be forgiving.  How can someone remember an entire conversation years later?  It's different than if they're quoting a print document like a letter.  Essentially, the reader has to assume that this is the writer's memory (or interpretation) of certain events.  Looking back on my TBR Pile Challenge list, I realized that exactly half of these books are essentially memoirs or opinions.

As I've mentioned, I've been reading a lot more nonfiction in the past few years -- maybe this also means I need to be more selective.  Does the popularity of nonfiction also mean an increase in thinly veiled fiction?  (And is it really more popular, or do I just think so because I've finally embraced nonfiction?)  Bloggers, how discriminating are you about your nonfiction?  Are there any "true stories" that you later found out weren't completely accurate?

10 comments:

  1. That is too bad that the author did not add a note in the book to the effect that "x percent of what I write here is true, and x percent is about other elephants", or some such wording. The idea of the book sounds good, since I do admire elephants.

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  2. Second comment from me :) I like reading biographies, especially about the Tudor period and about the Mitford family. "Sisters" is an excellent book about the Mitfords. Scholars and family members disagree on so much, but it is fun to read and try to sort it out for myself.

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    1. I loved "Sisters" -- one of my favorite books last year, could not put it down!!! I have two other books by Jessica Mitford on my TBR list, "Hons and Rebels" and "Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford." I hope to read one of them this year also.

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  3. No dates in a non-fiction book? Yeah, that would seem suspicious. I would have Googled it all too. I bet if it had been written later than 1998 there would have been more of an internet stink about it. We don't let things like this go anymore. ;)

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    1. Good point about the Internet! I feel better for not having noticed this. I only spent $1 for it at the library sale, so it's really just my time I can't get back. I've already donated back for the next sale.

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  4. Back in 2008, the only kind of nonfiction I ever read was memoirs, and then at some point, I just got to where I didn't trust them and preferred to read fiction if it was going to be so subjective anyway.

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    1. Yes! If he had just said it was fiction INSPIRED by a real elephant, I would have liked it a lot more. Hopefully the memoirs I have on my list are better. I'm already reading a biography of Queen Victoria's daughters that's much better. If nothing else, it has footnotes!

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  5. PS - I've heard other people say similar things about this book.

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  6. It seems so insignificant, but a small disclaimer like "INSPIRED BY" or "MY INTERPRETATION OF" is so, so important. It's all about honesty. I think our brains process fiction and nonfiction differently, and with nonfiction we rightly expect some level of intellectual factuality.

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  7. Sadly, it seems to be more and more acceptable for non-fiction writers to create fiction in the guise of non-fiction. I'm reading Starvation Heights right now, and though it's fascinating, playing "fast and loose" is running rampant.

    I've heard that it's easier to get non-fiction published than fiction, which might be fueling the quasi-non-fiction trend we're seeing.


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