December 2008

Barbara J. King

features

An Elephant's Dream

For 41 years, the elephant Hannah has seen no other creature of her kind. As the most famous resident of the past-its-heyday Max L. Biedelman Zoo in Washington State, she spends her days with zookeepers in a damp barn. At night, she is chained, alone, to the wall.

The heavy chain causes sores on Hannah’s leg; from too much time on cement and too little on grass, her feet suffer. She “had started getting arthritic ten years ago or more, from never having anything soft to stand on, and the more arthritic she got, the more she walked funny, and the funnier she walked, the more unevenly she wore down her foot pads, which put uneven pressure on her toenails,” which split open. The psychological stress is pronounced. Hannah rocks if she is nervous or lonely, a behavior she started when the other elephant at the Zoo died, all those 41 long years ago.

I often discuss, in this space, popular science books devoted to animals -- to our closest living relatives the great apes; to Alex the parrot; to the farm animals that Temple Grandin saves from needless pain; or to wild-living African elephants. The best of these books offers hard evidence to show that animals (animals other than ourselves, that is) think out solutions to problems and feel joy’s heights and grief’s depths.

Hannah, though, is not a real elephant, and Hannah’s Dream by Diane Hammond is not a science book. It’s a jewel of a novel, with its sparkle coming from the perfectly-drawn relationship between Hannah and her keeper Samson Brown. If relationships were colors, Hannah’s and Sam’s would be lemon-yellow, vibrant and reliable as the sun’s rising each day, a burst of love in Hannah’s muddy-brown life.

Hannah was born in Burma. Her mother was shot and killed by people working a rubber plantation; Hannah herself, about three years old, was wounded. Through a convoluted chain of events, she found herself at the zoo. Now, she carries a tire around with her, the elephantine equivalent of a comfort toy. But it’s Sam who reassures her most, in ways embodied as much as verbal. Hannah tucks her trunk under Sam’s arm when she’s nervous. As one keen observer in the book puts it, “If [Sam] goes into the barn and she can’t follow, she’ll wait by the door, sometimes for hours, until he comes back. Her behavior on his days off is totally different than it is when he’s working. She’s less sharp, less observant. She’ll stay all day in one part of her yard, rocking or sucking her trunk.”

And this is no unrequited love, as Hammond reveals in the book’s first sentence: “Samson Brown loved exactly two things in this world: his wife and his elephant.” Sam cares tenderly for Hannah’s sore feet; takes “his girl” for slow-ramble walks so that she can feel a few moments of soft ground underneath her; and spoils her with custard treats from Dunkin’ Donuts. Together with his wife Corinna, Sam spends two or three evenings a week with Hannah in the elephant barn. Indulging Hannah’s penchant for action movies -- and for leading men like Danny Glover and Mel Gibson -- they watch videos together.

Heartstrings do get tugged in Hannah’s Dream, but Hammond avoids crashing crescendos of emotion. She builds a picture of Hannah’s and Sam’s deep bond in a gradual and understated way. Once in a while, she slips in a passage that hits home with power-punch force:

Sam led Hannah to the back of the barn and the windowless stall where she spent the night. She could hear the clanking of the chain and shackle as Sam secured her, turned on a nightlight, gave her one last yam, and tuned a radio to an easy-listening station.

"You be good now, sugar," he said in the gloom. "Morning’ll come soon."

It was the one thing she’d ever heard him say that wasn’t true.

Much of the book’s dramatic tension stems from the impending consequences of Sam’s age and physical ailments. Struggling with diabetes, weary of constant work, Sam is keen to retire -- except he won’t, because it would mean abandoning Hannah, and that would kill her. Corinna fondly calls him “a mule” for his stubbornness; Sam retorts, “You find me someone for Hannah and I’ll be done tomorrow.”

Led in brains by a fiery young keeper named Neva, and in heart by Sam and Corinna, a small group of people hatch a plan to help Hannah. As they become entangled with the zoo’s ardent but misguided director, the book’s very own Cruella Deville, they plot and scheme and bond together. They intend to restore to Hannah what she had had once, years ago: a promise, made by zoo founder, freethinker, animal lover, and lesbian Max Biedelman, that her welfare would always trump ticket sales.

As the plotting continues, Neva introduces Hannah to enrichment activities. Suddenly, and with excitement, Hanna is searching for treats in a hidden-foods game; painting pictures; and playing the drums.

I’m no elephantologist. I have, though, spent time informally observing elephants in Amboseli, Kenya, and have read some of the scientific literature on elephant behavior. My take on Hannah’s Dream? Hammond channels elephants with grace and accuracy. Through an absorbing story, she laps gently at our consciousness by capturing the essential features of elephant emotional life. Because traces of science undergird the fiction, Hannah’s Dream is a palimpsest; I fought an urge to wield a science-editor’s pen and insert footnotes. Scientists report that elephants are intensely social animals that rejoice in reuniting after a separation, and mourn their family members who die. In a sorrowful twist, recent data show that following family disruption or other social trauma, elephants are prone to what can only be called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hammond captures an elephant’s complexity better than she does some people’s. Her minor characters, especially, come off as types: the peculiar-minded and shy next-door neighbor who lives only with cats and paints the inside of his toilet bowl for entertainment; the puffed-up but easy-to-manipulate young journalist; the shrill and selfish ex-wife. I could also have done without the reincarnation sub-plot. None of this I minded too much, however, compared to some of the habits Hammond insisted on giving to Sam.

Samson Brown grew up poor. An African-American man now in his 60s, he’s strong-willed and utterly devoted to Hannah and Corinna. He’s not highly educated; fair enough. But did Hammond have to make him so prone to deference, so completely unable to judge his own competence? He “sirs” people right and left. Meeting with his co-conspirators and a legal advisor, Sam says, “I’m not much good at talking about things sometimes. I lose my way, if you know what I mean.” “Well, this is complicated stuff,” replies the advisor. I winced; given Sam’s acuity with Hannah, there’s something off here.

In other ways, though, Sam shines as the book’s hero. Anyway, I trust Hammond’s intentions, even when I think she swerves slightly off course. In the acknowledgments section, Hammond describes the moment Sam came into her consciousness as a character. She was watching a televised documentary on elephants, one that I too have seen and that seared itself into my memory (and indeed, into my writing) as much as into hers. To say more would be to reveal too much; this story, a beautiful holiday gift for any sensitive soul, should unfold at its own pace.

To all the Hannahs of the world, chained to the wall at night, lonely and waiting for that one well-loved voice to light the morning, I want to telegraph a message: Hang on. People care. Change is coming.

-- For the elephants, see http://www.elephants.com/ and, if you can, please help -- Barbara J. King