Saturday, January 24, 2015

Elephant Company, February Book

Talk About Books meets at the Guilford Free Library every 3rd Wednesday of the month. On Wednesday, February 18 at 6:30, we will be discussing Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke. This is "the inspiring story of an unlikely hero and the animals who helped him save lives in World War II. Copies are available at the library.

Our “unlikely hero” is Lt. Col. James Howard Williams, a dashing, athletic man with a deep attachment to animals of all kinds, and an uncanny ability to communicate with them. Shortly after Williams returned from World War I, a chance meeting and the mere mention of elephants were all it took for the animal lover to apply for a job as an elephant wallah with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation.

On arriving at camp, he was shown a row of elephants and told, “Those four on the right are yours, and God help you if you can’t look after them.” Williams had no idea what that entailed, but his uncanny rapport with the elephants transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill. Impressed with their intelligence, courage, kindness, and humor, he believed that just living with the elephants made him a better man. He worked to cure their ills and he fought for their humane care.

This work of nonfiction is the result of Croke's detailed research.  Though rich in information, Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants) writes in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, "it is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species." Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.

What more can I say? Come get a copy and join us on February 18th. Meantime, go to for a fascinating browse.

Leah Gessner

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Orphan Train, January Book

Christina Baker Kline delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date; a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.

Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from "aging out" of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.

Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

 Christina Baker Kline writes in her website that "Orphan Train is a specifically American story of mobility and rootlessness, highlighting a little-known but historically significant moment in our country’s past. Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children – many of them first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants – from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for “adoption” (often, in fact, indentured servitude). Charles Loring Brace, who founded the program, believed that hard work, education, and firm but compassionate childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – were the only way to save these children from a life of depravity and poverty."

Go to Christina Baker Kline's website to learn more about this fascinating piece of history and why the author was inspired to write about it.