The full title of this book is Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II. That’s quite a mouthful, and this is quite a book. James Howard Williams, aka Elephant Bill, found a job with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in 1920 when he was 23, fresh from serving in the First World War and looking for adventure. His experience with the British Army in the Middle East helped prepare him for the ruggedness of jungle life, and his love of animals soon won him a position as the main person in charge of the elephants employed to haul the teak logs that were the mainstay of the business.
Over the next few decades, Williams won the trust of the elephants and the high regard of the humans through his kindness and respect for the integrity of the animals and their handlers. He acquired enough veterinary skills to doctor the many wounds and illnesses of the elephants, and with the help of one of the handlers, he changed the way young elephants were trained, to be more humane as well as cost effective. When World War II began and Burma was under attack by the Japanese because of its strategic location, Williams led a caravan of his elephants and some refugees over steep mountains, to take them to safety in India. It was a harrowing trip and his crowning achievement.
This book was fascinating on several levels. I know much more about elephants than I ever did before – their intelligence, sense of smell, social skills, sounds, and determination are greater than I ever suspected. I learned about Burma, the teak logging industry, jungle life, and British colonialism. I learned about human-animal connections. There was even a little romance, as Williams met and married his wife and soul mate.
Members of the Book Discussion Group thought this was a wonderful book. They felt the writing was very good and never bogged down, and there was so much to learn. They gave it 4+ stars.
Reviewed by Nancy
Date of discussion: October 7, 2015 Rating: 4 stars