How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
Sy Montgomery has spent her career writing about and studying animals. Perhaps her profession was inevitable from the moment in childhood when she told her parents she wasn’t a human girl but a pony, and then, when that phase ended, as her pediatrician assured her mother it would, she insisted she was a dog. When her family got Molly, a miniature schnauzer, Montgomery finally had a guide to the canine world. Montgomery realized that she had learned something from all the animals in her life, some, like Molly, a part of her family, some, like the spider Clarabelle or the Christmas Weasel, fleeting acquaintances. She learned how to be a Good Creature.
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, then, tells the story of thirteen notable animal teachers in ten chapters, and in so doing also hints at Montgomery’s story. In terms of structure and focus, the book reminded me of I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Both are memoirs organized around a specific topic (animals/near-death-experiences), and each chapter tells about a specific experience or lesson. This narrative choice makes the relatively brief book extremely clear in its purpose but also narrows the topics that Montgomery discusses.
Typically, I don’t read books about animals because they are too upsetting to me, but I made an exception for this book, and I’m glad I did even though it gutted me. I am still crying ugly tears. Montgomery’s love for animals comes through on every page, and she respects their unique individuality whether she’s describing her beloved pig Christopher or the octopus Octavia. She writes, “Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding.”
The cost of the love is pain, and when Christopher and her rescue dog Tess died in close proximity, Montgomery fell into a depression and considered suicide, not sure she could live without them. She’d committed to joining an expedition to study tree kangaroos in Papa New Guinea and decided to complete her obligation before making any decisions. The expedition team was able to find a male-female pair of tree kangaroos, something unexpected as a male had never been collared before. Dr. Lisa Dabek, head of the expedition, named the tree kangaroos Tess and Chris.
“Tess. Chris. Tess. Chris. How many times in the fourteen years I’d shared with my pig and my dog had I uttered those sweet words? Since their death, just the sound of their names had been as an arrow to my heart. But now it was different. Tess. Chris. Tess. Chris: repeating their names became a chant, a mantra, a prayer—a call to remember my beloved ones with gratitude.”
Montgomery was able to return to her life renewed, and other rescue animals became part of her family. “This is the gift great souls leave us when they die. They enlarge our hearts. They leave us a greater capacity for love.” (As an aside, I think it tragic, and not just a little selfish, when someone loses an animal and says they will never get another and go through the pain again. That attitude closes the speaker from the love of an animal and deprives a needy animal of a home. Please do not be that person. You can love another animal again and homeless animals need you.)
Even when the animal about which she writes is foreign to our experience, like a spider or octopus, Montgomery excels at describing their behavior. She treats them with the same reverence and respect she bestows upon dogs, pigs, and cats. While I might have empathized most with the chapters about dogs and pigs, I learned the most in the chapters about these less familiar creatures. “A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.”
In describing her life with animals, Montgomery also depicts her life with people: her husband, the writer Howard Mansfield; her friends in the New Hampshire community where she lives; and her parents, now both deceased, and who never understood her life choices. Montgomery relates what must be extremely difficult memories, such as her father disowning her, with a matter-of-fact remove, but ultimately with forgiveness.
Sy Montgomery herself is a Good Creature. She approaches animals, people included, with compassion and loving-kindness, and models the type of behavior and attitude I wish more people shared.
In fulfilling her purpose of capturing the life lessons from animal teachers, Montgomery’s book is near-perfect, and it is illustrated with fetching drawings by Rebecca Green. It’s also Green’s work on the cover, without a doubt my favorite book cover among the books I’ve read this year. The only problem with the book is when the reader (I) want to know more information that is outside of the book’s boundary conditions. Being on the road on expeditions must have been difficult on her marriage, but that isn’t a topic considered in the book, nor did she explain how she learned to research. Certainly there is more in her relationship with her parents to mine. I was also intrigued by asides. In her chapter on Clarabelle the spider, Montgomery emphasizes that people are not born with fears of spiders. I would be interested to know more about the research on this topic (which seems to be contradicted by recent studies conducted by Max Planck). And although I did sometimes want more information, I certainly respect the choice of a narrow focus–something many authors are reluctant to do–as it is much better than scope creep.
Even though this can be a sad book, it is ultimately life-affirming, and I think every animal lover will enjoy it. Perhaps those among us who aren’t animals, though, need to read it the most.