Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (2014)
Written by Vicki Constantine Croke
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Publisher: Recorded Books/Random House
Run Time: 9 hours 43 minutes
In Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book, Colonel Hathi comically leads his elephant troop through the jungle. Most of the other animals are bothered by the marching and would rather the pachyderm parade go elsewhere. But Mowgli the mancub is curious as ever and at one point joins in on the march.
In Vicki Constantine Croke's Elephant Company, elephants march and a man is curious about them, but not for slapstick comedy. A British employee working in the jungles of Burma (Myanmar) named Billy Williams works with logging elephants through the Great Depression and World War II. Despite the mention of the war in the book's subtitle, it isn't really discussed until the last third or so. Before then, the book is a wonderfully rendered biography of Williams building his life in the jungle while deepening his relationship with the elephants. As the book progresses, he goes from company man to married man to jungle warrior, using the elephants and trails he knows well against the Japanese onslaught.
Croke touches on some universal, but beloved themes in nature writing in this book, namely man's relationship with animals and the cost of human conflict on the animals themselves. The research is thorough and first-rate, which is par for the course for Croke, who has been featured on NPR and wrote in The Boston Globe for more than a dozen years. The narration by Simon Prebble can drone on occasionally, in part because he repeats the same vocal cadence in how he reads sentences, but is otherwise a good read.
Rating: 4/5 stars. An enjoyable, even-handed history of a man's relationship with elephants through economic and global strife. I especially recommend this one to animal lovers and those curious about exotic places, since the book also acts as a bit of a micro-history to Burma.