Book Notes: A pig unites a community
“How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” by Sy Montgomery. Illustrated by Rebecca Green. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/New York, 2019. $20. 200 pages.
Having just lost a beloved companion cat, I kept putting off reading Sy Montgomery’s beautifully illustrated and formatted book, “How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals.” Anyone who appreciates animals knows that, along with the joy-filled moments, there are those times of dread and grief. Our companion creatures don’t live long enough, and it is our sobering responsibility to shepherd them through the rough patches and know when to call it quits.
In other words, Montgomery’s book promised many of the same ups and downs of animal stewardship. Finally, just a few days before this book review was due, I sat down and began to read. I’m glad I did. She is good at evoking the joy. Montgomery is one of us, one of those people who respects animals and who intuits the depth of their intelligence, psychology and emotional range. Despite how distraught she became when her animals died, she found perspective. In her struggles, she brings herself and her readers through the dark times. She can’t help herself. She carries on, finding new creatures to befriend, and, through them, new life lessons.
Montgomery delivers, as promised, a portrayal of herself that is influenced by some of the animals in her life, first on military bases as the daughter of a general and later, in rural Hancock, New Hampshire. Among the animals she features are a few smart and fun-loving Scottish terriers; a massive pig that loved snacks and spas and people; a Goliath birdeater spider (an especially huge tarantula whose head can grow as big as an apricot); a gorgeous white ermine weasel that made a rather stunning visit on Christmas morning; and the curious and affectionate octopus, Octavia, that she wrote about in her recent bestseller, “The Soul of an Octopus.”
Christopher Hogwood, the 700-plus-pound pig that began life as a discarded runt, changed Montgomery’s life. Chris was an extrovert and Montgomery was shy. Once the pig’s appetites for snacks and the company of people became known, everyone stepped up to take part in the fun the pig dispensed with relish. Even the postmaster saved vegetable scraps for Christopher. The young girls next door washed him in warm, soapy water and braided his few hairs. He was a regular joy factory.
“Studying at the cloven feet of this porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savor this world’s abundance: The glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children.” Christopher gave Montgomery the stories she needed to step out of her shyness and talk with others about how the pig engineered his brilliant escapes and escapades, how he ate with delicate precision, how he recognized people and remembered them for years.
Shyness was a problem for Montgomery, but so was depression. Her father broke off contact with her when she, a Methodist, married a Jew. Close family ties were severed. But the death of animals like Christopher Hogwood, who had immersed her in a rich life, meant that something monumentally important dropped away. The grief, in her words, “felt bottomless.” Even her hair fell out. She decided to commit suicide if the grief failed to subside. She found release at 10,000 feet in the remote region of Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula, working with a handful of people who studied a species of kangaroo that lives in trees. Montgomery saw the animals as “wildness itself.” She wrote: “Here in the cloud forest, I found again the wildness that keeps us sane and whole, the wild delicious hunger for life.”
You never know, writes Montgomery. “It could be that something wonderful is right around the corner.”
Montgomery writes books for adults and youth. This book has appeal for people of all ages. The language, beautiful and poetic at times, is filled with feeling and propelled by a quest for more - more knowledge, more adventure, more connection. It is, as promised, the story of a life lived in close proximity to animals. While that life is a privilege, it demands much of those who open themselves to animals and the environmental catastrophe that now imperils the wild world.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.