How to Be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. 2018. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction memoir—but really, this book transcends genre

Levels: A book for anyone, of any age, who loves nature, animals, and life

How to Be a Good CreatureI have loved many books, but none will ever replace this one in my heart. Now and again, a book speaks to you on such a deep level that you feel an immediate bond with the author, feel changed for having read it, and know you will return to it again and again. How to Be a Good Creature is a book to treasure, one to give to those you love. Initially, in fact, I did buy it as a gift. As an avid reader, though, I couldn’t resist one small peek (You know how it is), and after only a couple pages I couldn’t put it down. I knew right then I’d have to not only keep that copy forever, but buy several more—for this is a book that begs to be shared.

Though the book is classified as a memoir, it’s so much more. It’s a philosophical tour de force, an homage to nature. At its heart it’s the story of how the inimitable Sy Montgomery came to be a genius naturalist and writer. Her compelling, uninhibited, and wildly entertaining interactions with the world’s creatures make us think in new ways about parenthood, friendship, love, loss and grief, and above all, how we treat other beings, human or not. The book runs a modest 177 pages, yet within that small package manages to be all we expect of any great book. Following are just a handful of the things I loved most.

The Voice of Honesty

Memoir is of course driven by memories of people and events that shape a life. Most of the “people” in this book are animals, but they are more vivid and influential than almost any human characters I can recall. The events are close-up personal encounters with—among others—spiders, emus, tree kangaroos, frighteningly intelligent octopuses, big hearted dogs, and an unforgettable pig who turns out to be a virtual shaman.

Sy’s story begins when she’s about three-and already we can see how startlingly different she is from her peers. She’s an only child who has no wish whatsoever to be otherwise. Her earliest memories include imagining herself a pony (later a dog), preferring goldfish to human friends, dressing a stuffed baby caiman in doll’s clothes, surviving an accidental hair-raising (for her parents) encounter with 3,000-pound hippos, and enduring the sad but virtually inevitable death of her pet turtle Ms. Yellow Eyes.

A turning point for Sy comes with the arrival of Molly, a “tough, feisty little” Scottish terrier, who shares Sy’s independent spirit, and is driven by a deep curiosity Sy finds infectious. From Molly, Sy learns that there is “a vivid, green, breathing world out there, bustling with the busy lives of birds and insects, turtles and fish, rabbits and deer.” At age five, foreshadowing the adventurer she will become, Sy is obsessed with exploring that world, and longs to see things through Molly’s all-knowing eyes (and nose). Unfortunately, her parents find this more than a little distressing. While Sy’s mother frantically sews frilly dresses she hopes will turn her young scientist into a princess, Sy blithely and determinedly rejects dolls and petticoats, avoids “wiggly” and pesky human friends who scare the birds and bees away, and explores every crack and crevice of nature into which she can fit her face, feet, or fingers.

Sy puts it this way: “The real world, the world I already loved, was just out of my ordinary human sensory range. For now. But one day, I knew, we’d escape and go there, to the wild places, where Molly would at last share with me her animal powers.”

As Sy matures, the emotional and psychological gap between her and her parents widens into a chasm—and Montgomery writes about this with an openness that is heart wrenching,  stunning, and somehow endearing. “To my parents, I was a different species,” she admits in the chapter on her four-legged companion Christopher Hogwood. They had wanted her to train for the Army, and to marry someone more like themselves. She didn’t oblige—and they didn’t relent. Instead, she married someone as individual as herself, and as different from her parents as anyone might imagine. And seizing every opportunity Nature could provide, she pursued her dream of visiting the “wild places,” making friends with an expansive array of animal species, and learning lessons she would generously share with the world.

The unflinching honesty underlying this book infuses every line with a voice I find irresistible—knowledgeable, heartfelt, compassionate, and profoundly reverent. It’s conversational to be sure, but this is a conversation with someone whose unique insights awaken feelings from the deepest and best parts of us. As Anne Lamott once put it, we’re grateful for some writing the way we’re grateful for the sea. Soul grateful.

Favorite Chapters: “Tess” & “Christopher Hogwood”

Montgomery relates her adventures with such intimacy that it’s all but impossible not to be drawn into her world—and to identify. Like Sy, I loved small turtles as a child, and like her, kept losing them to domestic disasters. Poor Timmy (my first pet turtle) slipped into the heat vent, unseen, and we didn’t recover him for quite some time. When I was in middle school, one of my own best friends was in fact a border collie, so “Chapter 6: Tess” rocked me to the core, nudging memories I hadn’t visited in a while. Anyone who’s ever loved a dog will, I suspect, be swept away by Sy’s stories of Tess, Sally, and Thurber, crazy intelligent dogs who can anticipate human wants even before they’re spoken.

Yet it’s “Chapter 3: Christopher Hogwood”—the story of a little pig who came home in a shoebox and then grew to an astonishing 750 pounds—that keeps calling to me.

The Good Good Pig2In part, I suppose, this is because I already knew Christopher. Though I never had the honor of meeting him personally, I have been a stalwart member of his fan club for years. I carried Sy’s book The Good Good Pig for thousands of miles, reading from it to teachers in writing workshops everywhere—and always giving the copy I’d brought to someone in attendance. I think The Good Good Pig was my favorite of Montgomery’s remarkable books (though Birdology and The Soul of an Octopus competed feverishly for my heart) until this current little gem came out.

Soul of an OctopusHappy as I was to hear more about Christopher, though, here’s what really struck me: In this third chapter, Sy makes clear that she doesn’t just find animals interesting. She doesn’t just observe or study them. Her feelings soar far beyond empathy. To be sure, she rescues animals in need (a lifelong enterprise), and Christopher Hogwood is one beneficiary of her boundless sensitivity. But these animals are more than pets or companions. They are her friends—in every sense of that word, and with all that friendship implies. Somehow, her capacity to understand them, and to get inside their minds and hearts, creates a species-to-species rapport that bypasses all limitations. Love at this level is transformative, both for Sy and for us as readers. Countless humans (you may be one) have bonded with dogs, cats, or horses. But do you know many who’ve experienced true friendship with, say, a tarantula? Or an octopus?

BirdologyThe differences between Sy and Christopher—he’s a quadruped, she’s a biped, he has hooves and she doesn’t—will not “trouble” their relationship, she tells us (the way smaller differences have bungled her relationships with humans). How could they? She recognizes in Christopher a genuine spiritual capacity to love and to teach others about love. He’s a pig, yes, but that’s only physical. He’s also the “great big Buddha master.” In what is surely one of my favorite lines from the book, Sy declares, “ . . . Christopher helped create for me a real family—a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.”

 

Fabulous Facts

Don’t you love books that teach you things you didn’t even realize you were dying to know? Sy Montgomery has traveled to places—the jungles of Sundarbans where man-eating tigers dwell, the Outback of Australia, the cloud forests of New Guinea, the Amazon, the savannahs of Africa—most of us will never experience firsthand. Her exhaustive, very personal research enables her to collect unexpected, striking details that imprint themselves forever in our minds.

Chapter 4, “Clarabelle,” showcases the “Queen of the Jungle.” She is not, as you might suspect, a tiger or lion. Clarabelle is a Goliath birdeater, the largest tarantula on earth, and she makes her home in French Guiana, part of northern South America. Think you know about tarantulas? Check this out: “A female can weigh a quarter pound. Her head might grow as big around as an apricot, her leg span stretch long enough to cover your face.” There’s a detail we can feel.    charlottes-web2

I admit my attitude toward spiders is not as open-minded as Sy’s. She rescues spiders from the corners of her home and releases them into the wild. Despite having read Charlotte’s Web countless times, I am not that noble. But I am deeply appreciative for all I learned from this chapter—and this remarkable book as a whole. In a later chapter, for example, we discover that octopuses enjoy taking apart and reassembling Mr. Potato Head. I would imagine that yes, they are considerably faster at it than humans.

Sy Montgomery knows how to feed the information addict in all of us. And I dare say, if you ever get the opportunity to hold a live tarantula on the palm of your hand, she might just leave you with the courage to try it.

A Book You MUST Read Aloud

If you’re a teacher, you’re likely always on the hunt for good read-aloud nonfiction. Look no further. Expect your students to be not just intrigued, but downright enchanted by passages like this one from the chapter on tree kangaroos: “These two animals carried within them the wild heart that beats inside all creatures—the wildness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wildness that keeps us on this spinning planet.” You have to love language to write like that.

I read “Chapter 5: The Christmas Weasel” aloud to my husband, while he was patiently trying to read another book of his own. As I read, I could see him from the corner of my eye, gradually lowering his book and surrendering to Sy Montgomery’s story telling prowess.

It didn’t hurt that we’d recently had a weasel adventure of our own. A very small but intrepid weasel moved under our deck last summer and proceeded to clear the yard and surrounding woods (plus three wood piles) of all mice, squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits—in record time. Most were far larger than he was. His speed and appetite were astounding. When he emerged one morning from under the deck, only six feet away, looking me right in the eye, I hoped he wasn’t wondering just how hard it would be to take down someone my size. Sy Montgomery describes her winter weasel, an ermine, as having “a look so bold and fearless that it knocked the breath from my lungs.” That’s the look, all right.

Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dull, methodical, and plodding, as students too often think. In fact, nonfiction can be filled with mind blowing details and harrowing encounters—weasel versus chicken (or weasel versus human), for instance. Real life beats the encyclopedia every time.

Quotable Lines, Mind Snaring Leads, Language to Love

For years, I have quoted Sy Montgomery’s work in my books and workshops. How could I resist? She is among the most gifted nonfiction writers of all time—and has a sense of humor to boot. Her books grace the front shelf of my desk, and as noted earlier, have traveled cross-country with me. One of the most effective ways we teach writing is to share with students what great authors do.

How to Be a Good Creature is literally exploding with quotable lines you might use to teach students about leads and endings, precision in word choice, use of simile or metaphor, and a dozen other hallmarks of the craft. Here’s a favorite quotable moment, from “Chapter 9: Octavia.” Sy tells us that among those species of octopus scientists have studied, most prefer solitude:

“Even mating is a fraught affair,” she explains, “apt to turn into the kind of dinner date when one octopus eats the other.” That’s metaphorical brilliance.

When we teach students to write nonfiction, we don’t always encourage them to write something quotable or memorable. We should, though. Good research inevitably leads to exciting information, the kind great writers use to snag—and hold—our attention.

The Gift of a Great Book

In this season of giving, I am infinitely grateful to Sy Montgomery for giving us such a wonder of a book. Maybe someone on your seasonal gift list loves books, animals, nature, or philosophical musings on life. Or give this book to yourself—especially if you’re a teacher of writing. It offers endless lessons about condensing information, interweaving narrative and nonfiction gracefully, making statistics palatable and memorable, and above all, writing from the heart about things that have touched you deeply.

This truly is a book about being better. About being open, receptive, aware, and in harmony with the Earth and all its creatures—including the most humble—for they are our teachers. What better, more timely message could we possibly hope for?

How to Be a Good Creature

The perfect gift

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