San Antonio Express-News
"Once I started this incomparable story, I couldn't put it down, and I cannot get it out of my mind--nor will I ever. The message of what can be accomplished by training through affection and joy will thrill all animal lovers." "Once in a while, a book comes along to prove that wonderful friendships can occur between the animal kingdom and mankind. Ralph Helfer has done it with Modoc.
"Heartwarming, captivating...a beautifully true story that will make you think twice about the incredible and very real feelings of elephants, and probably the greatest love story ever told.
VOYA - Karen Herc
This picaresque tale of Modoc, the elephant who saved sailors from drowning, survived gunshot wounds and a poisoning attempt, and learned to perform alone without a trainer, strains credibility although the author claims his account is based on truth. In an introductory disclaimer, Helfer discusses his attempts at research before mentioning that in writing this type of story "a little (poetic) political license is taken." No sources of information are given and no dates are mentioned in the book, although the jacket copy says Modoc was born in 1896. The book is as much about Modoc's trainer, Bram Gunterstein, as it is about the elephant herself. Bram and Modoc were born on the same day, and the man risked much to be with the elephant, including smuggling her away after she had been sold. Although their adventures together are fascinating, a lot of the book is plodding and some of the presumably fictionalized dialogue is laughable. Bram spouts a great deal of philosophical speculation about humans and animals and their interaction. The love scenes between Bram and the two women he marries contain descriptions straight out of a serial romance novel, and the scenes where Bram confronts prejudice because of his Jewish background are heavy-handed. Bram and the author, who appears as a character late in the book rather than as a narrator, shared a preference for gentle training methods for animals. Helfer's love of Modoc shows, and young adults who are equally enamored of animals may enjoy this long tale of her life, but others will find it difficult to wade through the philosophical bog to reach her adventures. Photos. VOYA Codes: 3Q 2P S (Readable without serious defects, For the YA with a special interest in the subject, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
The simply astonishing, exhilarating storycomplete with high adventure, betrayal, and resurrectionof Modoc, elephant extraordinaire, told by Helfer (The Beauty of the Beasts, 1990).
They were born on the same day, a hundred years back, in a Black Forest village: Bram Gunterstein, son of a circus animal trainer, and Modoc, an Indian elephant headed for big-top life with the Wunderzircus, a provincial troupe. Their love for each other develops early, when Bram is just a toddler and Modoc a youthful one-ton package, and Bram's father on his deathbed councils Bram to watch after Modoc. That he does, and the tribulations and pleasures they share defy the imagination: The circus is sold out from under Bram to the sinister Mr. North; Bram stows away on the vessel transporting Modoc, leaving behind the girl of his dreams; discovered, Bram wins over the captain, but the ship sinks during a hurricane; Modoc and Bram float to the shores of India, where Bram learns further tools of the trade at the maharaja's elephantarium; there he lives in a teak-built compound, tends to Modoc, and is honored to have an audience with the sacred white elephant; he woos and wins a woman from the village but is warned that North is on his trail. He strikes out with Modoc to the teak plantations of Burma, is captured by rebels, loses his wife, confronts North, journeys to the US and fashions a spectacular show for Modoc, wins back his earlier love, only to have the elephant sold out from under him again. Helfer (an animal trainer by trade) happens across Modoc and buys him in the 1970s, then Bram appears yet again. The story is told with a heart-tugging warmth that, granted, at times slips into Disney mode, but that feels credible: There is, amazingly enough, a truthful tang to the picaresque proceedings.
One glorious pachyderm and one cracking story.
Read an Excerpt
On a gray, foggy morning they came, rising on the cold north winds from the icy peaks, sweeping across the timberland into the gray, misty valleys of the Black Forest . . . baby sounds! Somewhere below the fog layer, the insistent wails of a baby could be heard, their temerity as if from Mother Earth herself.
And then another voice arose. Deeper, brassy, trumpety, but still a . . . baby sound. It, too, was whisked away through the thermals, swirling and dashing about until it met its kin. A quiet moment hung over all. Then, together, they joinedthe wailing and trumpeting became one. They drifted over the countryside, beyond the river, across the corn rows and the desolate fields of last summer's picking.
The first sunlight of the morning bathed the chilly Hagendorf Valley with its burnt ochre sphere. It seemed to rest, but for a moment, at the foot of Olymstroem Mountain upon a rather small but quaint old German farm. It was from there both baby sounds emanated.
A rutted dirt road snaked up the center of the farm, separating the pale yellow German-Swiss style two-story house from the large, old, rock and timber barn. The barn's rock supports had tumbled down at every corner, resembling small volcanoes with boulders spewed in all directions. The rotting wood structure seemed to be part of the earth itself, and spoke bluntly of the many years of winter storms it had survived.
Circus paraphernalia lay everywhere. A huge old wooden circus wagon, its hitch buried deep, wheels dug into the mud from years before, showed chips of red and gold paint still visible on its frame. Pieces of candy-striped tent hung over the barn's windows. A broken ticket booth lay inshambles, its general admission sign still hanging from the roof. Chickens, geese, a few pigs ran free around the dwellings. This was the Gunterstein farm.
The baby sounds had separated. From the second-story window of the house only the soft crying of an infant could be heard. Hannah, the midwife, an exceedingly large and buxom woman, finished powdering the infant's behind. After bundling him in a soft, warm blue blanket, she handed the baby boy to his mother. Katrina Gunterstein gently took her firstborn. A pretty woman in her early forties, the daughter of a dirt farmer, Katrina had a wide strong jaw and a high forehead that spoke well of her inherited German peasant stock. Kissing his bright pink cheeks, she opened her nightgown and offered the baby her full breast. The touch of the infant's tiny mouth on her nipple sent a ripple of pure ecstasy through her body.
"Oh, Josef! This is a boy to be proud of. Is he not wonderful?" She looked through tears of joy at her husband, who stood at her bedside.
Josef was the epitome of a proud father gazing down at his infant son. His slender body and chiseled high cheekbones made him appear much taller than his six-foot frame. Katrina had found the man of her dreams in Josef, a quiet, gentle man of the Jewish faith. After many failed attempts during their ten years of marriage, they were now blessed with a marvelous boy child. Although his blond hair and features came from the strong Nordic side of Katrina's family, he had the sweet and gentle warmth that radiated so strongly from Josef's heritage. They named him Bram, after Josef's father.
"The boy's going to make a fine elephant trainer," said Josef, his eyes full of anticipation.
Josef, as his father years before him, worked for a small village circus in the nearby town of Hasengrossck. He was a trainer, a trainer of animals. More precisely, Josef was a trainer of elephants. At times Katrina thought he loved the elephants more than he loved her, but better it be animals, she thought with a smile, than another woman. Besides, this love for animals was what made him the wonderful, caring man he was.
An ear-splitting trumpet shocked them out of their bliss. Realizing there was another baby to celebrate, Josef kissed his wife, the infant, and, in his excitement, even Hannah, and dashed downstairs, embarrassed at the mistake he had just made.
He felt a chill in the air as he stepped out on the porch. As morning broke, the earth's shadows eased their way down the mountains. Winter had worn out its welcome and spring was pushing the flowers up in the meadows. By the look of things it was going to be a wonderful day. Josef hugged himself briskly to keep out the cold and headed for the barn. Swinging open the large, creaky barn door, he stepped inside.
The scent of alfalfa, oat hay, and saddle soap, and the pungent odor of elephant stool in the damp musty air greeted Josef's nostrils. Bale upon bale of hay was neatly stacked against one side of the wall and formed large rectangular steps leading to the very top of the barn. From there one could touch the huge rafters that held the old structure together. On the opposite side of the barn were animal stalls, tack, and feed rooms. Inside the spacious tack room, the leather horse saddles, bridles, and halters had been buffed and polished to a high sheen. The brass buckles, D-rings, and cinches all sparkled, each piece having its appropriate place.
Hanging in an area of their own were huge elephant cinches and girth straps. A large elephant headpiece straddled a wire-and-cloth dummy elephant head. Heavy chains, clevises, a large coil of rope, and various elephant hooks and shackles were neatly laid out on rough-cut wooden shelves. Adjoining stalls housed the farm horses, goats, pigs, and milk cows.
Silhouetted in the rays of the early morning sunlight filtering through the large open doors at the rear of the barn was a giant living form. Vapors rose from the monolithic body, spiraling up to the single hooded lamp hanging from a rafter high above in a feeble attempt to light the area below. The form had a strange resemblance to the locomotives hissing and steaming in the darkened train barn at Frankfurt station, waiting to be hitched to a long line of boxcars.