Book Review: Modoc

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer


This is a very sweet book, an amazing story about a remarkable elephant. It is also unbelievably cheesy.

That doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. Most love stories are cheesy to one extent or another, and this is, most definitely, a love story. It’s a story about a man named Bram Gunterstein and the three loves of his life: the two women he loved, Sian and Gerdie, and the elephant, a female Indian pachyderm named Modoc. He called her Mo. Mosie.

Mo and Bram were born on the same day, in the same hour, on the farm owned by Bram’s elephant-trainer father, near the Black Forest in Germany. The two grew up together, and the pastoral idyll of this portion of the book is almost painfully innocent and sweet – it did, for me, get a bit saccharine, especially when Gerdie comes into the picture and she, Bram, and Mo spend summertime frolicking through the hedgerows and splish-splashing in the lakes. Ah, Youth. But then reality catches up and the owner of the circus where Modoc performs with her elephant family sells everything to an American circus owner. Bram is to be left behind as Modoc and the other animals are moved to America.

But Bram can’t leave Mo. So instead, he leaves Gerdie – and as sad as it is, it is clearly the right choice.

Unfortunately, when Bram and Modoc leave the pastoral perfection of their childhood, frankly, the shit hits the fan. A whole lot of shit hits a whole lot of fans, and spreads far and wide. The two have incredible adventures, most of them in some way terrible. There is suffering, war and blood and death, disease and starvation and fire and misery. There is also a tremendous amount of love, and quite a lot of spirituality; Bram believed that the way to God was through communion with nature, particularly through close bonds with specific animals as he had with Modoc. If he was right, then he no doubt found his way to God, because I can’t imagine a closer bond than his with this elephant.

In the end, I liked the book. It was absolutely riveting at times, and heartbreaking at others; though the author, Helfer, who knew Bram and Modoc both towards the ends of their lives, tends heavily towards the cheese, I would say it’s because he’s an animal trainer, not an author. I will also say he’s a much better poet: there is a memorial poem he wrote included at the end of the book which is by far the best moment of writing. But even if he was a terrible writer – which he is not – this book would be worth reading just for the story, and the characters. Definitely recommended.

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