How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir In Thirteen Animals, by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green
This book is the sort that provides accidental insight that the author does not entirely intend. In reading about the book, it would appear as if the author thinks that she can somehow show herself to be compassionate and understanding despite the handicap (in her mind) of having grown up in a deeply conservative household. And yet, like many people who profess themselves to be open-minded liberals, she shows herself to be of poor mental health and of spectacularly poor insight in those people who she looks down upon (especially her mother), whose concern with respectability and honor are impossible for her to understand given her own background of comparative privilege relative to the upbringing her parents had despite their own later success. This book is a memoir, but it is one that does not reflect as well upon the author as she thinks, a frequent problem in memoirs where people fancy themselves to be far more in the right and far more insightful than they actually turn out to be when one looks at their words and behaviors. If I felt compassion for the author, it was not in the way that would make me agree about the choices she has made about how to live her life, however interesting that life seems to have often been.
This book is a short one at less than 200 pages and a very highly illustrated one as well that relates the story of the author’s life (with frequent digressions to talk about her frequent bookwriting and researching expeditions) through thirteen animals that the author encountered in some way. The author begins with her discussion of the fierce Scottish terrier named Molly that she had as a kid (1) and then moves on to three emus that she met while camping in the outback and doing informal research (2). After that, the author talks about the hog that she and her Jewish husband raised with no interest in eating it (3) as well as a tarantula that helped the author overcome her fear and loathing of such creatures (4). Another chapter explores the author’s fondness for a Christmas weasel (5). Several chapters then discuss the author’s proclivity for taking care of rescue border collies named Tess (6), Sally (8), and Thurber (10). In addition to this, the author explores some tree kangaroos that helped her recover from a bit of depression after Tess’ death (7) and her own relationship with a clever and affectionate octopus aptly named Octavia for her eight limbs (9) who had a doomed desire to spawn despite lacking a spouse. The book then ends with some photos of the author and various animals, some suggestions for further reading (including the author’s other books), and some acknowledgements.
Despite my problems with the author and her perspective and certainly her politics and her rather poor track record when it comes to showing honor and respect for her parents, it is not as if this book is absent about insights drawn from animals. The author has apparently made her career in studying animals with sympathy and understanding and thus demonstrating that many of them are far more intelligent than they have often been viewed by the scientific community. Speaking personally, I see no difficulty that an intelligent Creator would wish to endow so much of His creation with a great deal of insight and understanding, and that wise and intelligent people demonstrate that at least in part by recognizing the savvy and intelligence and insight of others. Unfortunately, while this book does a good job of representing the way that the author has learned to recognize the wisdom that many animals have, and demonstrating her own love of rescuing animals and recognizing their quirks and individuality, the author is less than insightful in demonstrating that she knows how to recognize the insight of other human beings, especially those who think like her parents.