Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

( 98 )

Overview

Spanning seven decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, an apprenticeship with the legendary Mahout elephant trainers in the Indian teak forests, and their eventual rise to circus stardom in 1940s New York City. Modoc is a captivating true story of loyalty, ...

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Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

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Overview

Spanning seven decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, an apprenticeship with the legendary Mahout elephant trainers in the Indian teak forests, and their eventual rise to circus stardom in 1940s New York City. Modoc is a captivating true story of loyalty, friendship, and high adventure, to be treasured by animal lovers everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
African Sun-Times
"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).
Kirkus Reviews
The simply astonishing, exhilarating story—complete with high adventure, betrayal, and resurrection—of 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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929510
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 171,894
  • Product dimensions: 7.96 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Ralph Helfer is a well-known Hollywood animal trainer who was one of the first to use affection and kindness to train wild animals. He is the author of The Beauty of the Beasts, and he lives in Los Angeles and Kenya, where he leads safari tours.

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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 joined—the 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.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 98 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(73)

4 Star

(9)

3 Star

(9)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 99 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Can't believe Helfer can claim this is a "true story" ... it's OK fiction.

    The premise of this book--that the elephant and baby are born the same day many years ago and grow up together--is fascinating and endearing, and you really want to go along on this ride. It's a great theme for a book, compelling and terrific... but falls apart. There's no documentation for the "true" tale, no quoted witnesses, no photos of the trainer Bram, and nothing to support the entire story. Helfer does not even claim that it was told to him by "Bram," so we don't actually know how it came to be.

    The plot points are all hit by other reviewers--idyllic youth in Germany, elephant purchased by evil big-deal American circus owner, trainer who can't separate from the animal he has never owned, etc. While I love the story and all the details about the shipwreck, the Elephantarium in India, the maharajah/white elephant, etc., the truth eventually becomes apparent--this story cannot possibly BE true. And so it should not be hyped as such on the subtitle/cover.

    The writing is over the top and sentimental. The book is organized purely by chronology, although exact years, references to the War, Depression, etc, are missing. There's nothing wrong with it if that's what you like, but this is labelled non-fiction; this type of book is generally not so emotional. It reminds me of a Victorian-style novel in that it deals in the emotional plane nearly all the way through.

    So perhaps it's one person's version of a compiled "truth." It would be easier to accept if it were labelled as a compilation of many of the best circus-elephant stories out there... which would probably be a GREAT idea for a book! With pictures, interviews, illustrations, descriptions and news excerpts. Like real non-fiction!

    Also interesting that nowhere on the internet can I find an interview of Helfer about this book. It was fairly well received when it came out and has sold well over the years... so why doesn't he come out and tell fans/readers what the truth of the book might be? There are a lot of over-emotional animal lovers out there who would love to hear more... I myself have hunted in vain for more info on Modoc and/or Bram, but there's little to be found. Modoc was the name of several circus elephants, adding to the puzzle.

    So... it's a great story, but don't be fooled into thinking it's all true. It's written in a very emotional, opinionated way. I think animal lovers would like it regardless.

    10 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    This is one of the best books I have ever read!

    I am an avid reader. I read an average of 8 or more books a month ranging in all genres. Having said that this is one of the top three books i have ever read. Words can't relay how this book will stay in my memory, it's just that wonderful. Ralph Helfer deserves a standing ovation with this one-Bravo!!!

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    One of the best books I own.

    This book made me want to support the elephant charties. I love this book. Best story ever.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2008

    completely inspiring!

    Modoc is a great book, obviously one in which had been written with great care. It seems as if it would be a noval of fiction rather than one of nonfiction, with all of the adventures and dangers in which Modoc and Bram face. It is a truly grand tale, one in which the reader should thoroughly enjoy and use an open heart with. The bond between animal and person is very vividly shown, along with how truly evil the human race can be towards animals, whom have done nothing wrong. A very good book,for animal lovers of all kinds!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2003

    Disbeliever

    Is this REALLY a true story? I had such high expectations when I read the cover. But I don't even think the pictures are real. Modoc is described numerous times as having tusks, yet the elephant in the pictures does not have tusks (and it may be several different elephants if you look closely). And that fire picture is from the Hartford Circus fire of 1944 (Look it up on Google). I have searched for any other existing story or information on Modoc or Bram Gunterstein and the only thing I ever get a hit on is this book. I understand that some 'poetic license' must be taken when writing a historical account, but if you are writing a novel, just say you are writing a novel, don't try to pass it off as a true story. I was extremely disappointed.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 19, 2009

    Disappointing

    I found this basically unreadable. An intriguing story perhaps, but the writing is just not compelling.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2012

    My favorite book

    I dont read very often and i am a slow reader as well but not for Modoc. I LOVE elephants so this story just made my love for them even greater. This story is filled with so much love and compassion it is truly a greatstory and has become my favorite book. I would recommend t
    o to anyone and everyone!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2012

    Great story!

    "Modoc" was selected by our book club for our March read. Everyone loved it. The bond between Bram and Modoc was so very touching. Everything they went through all those years tugged at your heart. I cried at the end, which I seldom do. Very highly recommended.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2012

    A book I will always remember

    I read an average of 10 books a month. This book will be among my top five all time favorites. So well written and certainly not a book you can easily put down. Read it for yourself and most of all enjoy!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2012

    Heartfelt & Amazing

    It has been a while since I read this book, but it has left a lasting impression on me. It tells a heart-warming tale about a man and his beloved elephant companion, while also reminding us of the old adage "An elephant never forgets." and that all animals should be treated with love and respect. This book made me laugh, cry and everything in between. An amazing read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A must read

    Very well told and makes you want to read more. The adventures keep going and going from page to page. Hard to believe it's true, so many things in one lifetime.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    An excellent read! 5 stars!!!!!

    This was one of the best animal books I have ever read, and will one of my favorite books read ever. The story is compelling right from the start, and commands your attention throughout.It exposes the best and some of the worst behavior in the human character, and makes us realize, who are the real humans in this world, people or animals? It held my attention throughout, and I had a hard time putting it down. Pay no attention to the nay sayers or doubters, as they probably would not believe this story no matter how much documentation was provided. Do yourself a favor, and buy this book, ;Im positive you will treasure it forever! Bravo to Ralph Heifer on such a superb book! I give you warm applause & a tip of the hat! Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful & heartwarming story!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2012

    Modoc

    Wonderful wonderful book , could not put it down - only to get more kleenex !

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    i love this book! a must read for animal lovers! i don't know if

    i love this book! a must read for animal lovers! i don't know if it's true or not, and frankly, i don't care. i like to believe that it's true because it makes me smile thinking that someone as awesome and amazing as Modoc walked the same planet as i do. =)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2010

    split personality

    This was one of the worst-written books I have ever had to read as an adult. Helfer should have stuck to writing a children's book and eliminated the pointless and less-than-erotic sex scenes. Clearly he did no research for the story other than a collection of hearsay tales. I had to do my own research to find out when the story took place. Heflin doesn't tell the reader that the evil Mr. North is actually a North Ringling, and that the circus Modoc performs with is the Ringling Bros. That being said, I don't know if the author's portrayal of Mr. North is fair. The very short reference to the unidentified circus-tent fire was actually about the infamous Hartford fire. Stewart O'Nan, a great writer, wrote a book about that fire, Circus Fire. I am glad I know the story... I may never look at an elephant the same way again.... but fans of a gripping story that is rich with historical fact and information ( like Erik Larsen or Sebastian Junger) will not find it here. How about some research about elephants, at least?! Read it to your kids, skip the hormones.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2010

    i love animals so i gotta love this but it isn't good writing, kinda high school. IMO.

    i said it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2013

    Easily my favorite book.

    From the first paragraph, you're hooked. A constant adventure and love story, but not a traditional love story. The bond between the two is envy provoking. This book is the first book I recommend when asked for one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013

    This is a wonderful book. Have loaned it to friends and they lik

    This is a wonderful book. Have loaned it to friends and they liked it, too. It could be a great movie, with the right director.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2013

    awesome read

    awesome read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2013

    Wow

    I want to work with elephants for my career and this story was very inspirational.Conneting with a elephant or any animal on this level is inspiring.This book was so good I couldent put it down I laughed,I cried.Amazing.

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