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Angling at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

When I was a kid growing up, my idea of a great day was one spent sitting on the bank of a farm pond, cane pole in hand, watching a red and white bobber float on the water before me. Daydreaming about what might swim beneath the surface of that pond (I usually pictured a spectacularly beautiful Pumpkinseed hovering before my bait), my mind would turn, and turn again, in anticipation of all that could, at any moment, burst from that shimmering plane.

I don't get to cane pole fish like that anymore. I don't have as many afternoons to while away as I used to, and, truth be told, I don't think I could bear to remove another Pumpkinseed from the world of the living (life grows too precious when what remains of yours grows small). But, fortunately, another favorite pastime has helped take the sting out of the loss of fishing.

Every time I walk into the Talbot County Free Library, gaze out over the sea of books before me, my heart's bobber beats a little faster. Who knows what spectacularly beautiful stories swim beneath the covers of all those silently waiting volumes. Mentally, I put on my waders, take rod in hand, and step out into the stream.

The library's waters are nothing if not unpredictable—you never know where you might hook a trophy—but, like all anglers, I have my favorite fishing holes. Though I enjoy trolling any aisle, sooner or later I usually find myself in the 200s (Religion, including Comparative Religion and Mythology), the 400s (Languages), the 500s (Nature and Science), the 610s (Medicine), the 700s (Arts and Sports), the 811s and 821s (Poetry), the 900s (History), or Fiction or Biography. I've been trawling these same Talbot County Free Library aisles for over a quarter of a century now, and I never cease to be amazed by how often they produce what is, for me, a luminous thrill.

Not too long ago, while casting my eyes over the books in the 940s (World War II), I happened upon an unlikely title: Elephant Company. I think it was the black and white cover photo that really grabbed me, an image of four or five heavily-laden pachyderms threading their way down a jungle path, a turbaned mahout riding above each massive head.

I know we're meant to deplore colonialism, and in a very real sense I do. I've read Caroline Elkins' Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya and Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and George Orwell's Burmese Days. I know how evil colonialism could be, and often was, but I grew up reading neither Elkins nor Hochschild but Kipling and Haggard. Theirs was a world in which men like David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer braved steaming jungles to bring medicine, education, and what they believed to be eternal salvation to a land Kipling and Haggard assured me was benighted yet grateful.

Though I know I shouldn't, I sometimes miss that antiquated, comforting narrative of Western benevolence, however flawed, however condescending. And so, when a cover like Elephant Company's suggests a tale set in those long ago times, I shamefacedly remove it from the library's shelf, check it out, and hurry home to lose myself in a world that is no more.

And Elephant Company did not disappoint. Set in the years leading up to and including World War II, Elephant Company tells the story of one Billy Williams, a young man who, after serving in World War I, gave up a comfortable middle-class life in Britain to search for adventure and meaning in the uncharted jungles of Burma (now Myanmar).

Williams went to work in the teak trade, which meant learning how to train and care for elephants. This is not something that can be achieved overnight. Nevertheless, with absolutely no experience whatsoever, Williams was immediately placed in charge of a team of elephants and their mahouts and sent out into the jungle to oversee the operations of a vast timber empire.

Not surprisingly, most of his predecessors had failed and been sent home to England in disgrace, but despite debilitating bouts of malaria and loneliness, Williams fell in love with the work and the elephants. He became fluent in Burmese, developed a deep and trusting relationship with an elephant named Bandoola, and eventually, when World War II broke out and the Japanese were raping and murdering their way up Indochina, managed to lead sixty-four starving women and children to the safety of India by convincing a troupe of elephants to do something no elephant had ever done before.

If you like stories about faraway places and uncommon heroism, if you think elephants are as remarkable as I do, Vicki Constantine Croke's Elephant Company is the book for you. I would suggest you steer your boat into Non-Fiction and cast your line out toward that reedy stand of books around 940.5425 CROK.

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