Ghosts of War

By The Irrawaddy 4 December 2014

Epic Feats

Elephant Company, by Vicki Constantine Croke (Non-Fiction)

American Vicki Croke chanced upon a memoir written by an unusual colonial-era Englishman and elephant keeper, and was captivated by his account of leading a company of the animals through epic feats in the battle against the Japanese during the Second World War in Myanmar.

James Howard Williams’ 1950s book “Elephant Bill” described how elephants helped refugees escape Myanmar over steep and treacherous mountains, built bridges and transported weapons and supplies.

Croke’s eloquent reprisal of a forgotten tale is also the story of special animals, notably Bandoola, the elephant Williams loved most of all for his wisdom and sense of humor. Bandoola’s role in helping refugees scale an impossibly steep and dangerous mountain cliff almost strains belief. Following Williams, Croke is also taken with Po Thoke, the mahout who refused to “break” the young Bandoola and instead tamed him through gentle encouragement.

Published by Random House.


Booker Winner

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (Fiction)

Richard Flanagan became the third Australian to win the UK’s Booker Prize this year with a novel drawing on his father’s experiences as a prisoner of war on the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway.”

The story shifts between the Thai POW camp where surgeon Dorrigo Evans struggles with a hellish jungle existence and guilt over an old love affair, and contemporary Australia where he is an old man.

Flanagan’s multi-layered story has received rave reviews for its depth of characterization and insights into humanity in extremis. While Evans is perceived as a savior by the suffering prisoners around him, in his own eyes he is a “weak man.” In the minds of the camp’s Japanese overseers, ideas about weakness have been shaped inside an entirely different paradigm. The character of Evan’s former lover Amy Mulvaney illuminates the pain of women left behind during war and the power of love to ignite the human imagination. It took Flanagan twelve years and many discarded drafts to complete a story likely to go down as one of the Booker’s best.

Published by Chatto and Windus.

These reviews first appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.