BY MARCY SHORTUSE – Let’s talk elephants. They’re big, they’re gray, they have a trunk. They are also part of this year’s “One Big Grande Boca Book Club,” featuring Vicki Constantine Croke’s book, “Elephant Company.”
For the second year the Johann Fust Library Foundation, the Friends of the Boca Grande Community Center and the Gasparilla Inn & Club have joined together to sponsor this free, community-wide reading event.
This year’s presentation by the author will be held on Sunday, Jan. 31 at the Gasparilla Inn Beach Club. Other parts of the program will include a talk by experts from an elephant sanctuary in Florida, children’s programs, movies and music. The common theme, of course, is elephants.
At this season’s celebration, more than 240 lucky Boca Grande residents have the opportunity to hear world-famous animal activist and author, Vicki Croke, discuss her NY Times bestseller. This little-known story of World War II bravery, loyalty and love is thrilling male and female readers everywhere.
Tony Vecchio, executive director of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and an expert on elephant care and conservation, will join Croke. They will discuss the importance of rescuing the elephant population before it becomes extinct. And why your grandchildren may grow up never seeing a live elephant. Music, videos and a lively Q & A promise to make this an event you won’t want to miss.
“I first heard about Elephant Company from my brother-in-law who told me he had given a copy of it to all his sons as a gift,” said Roger Lewis, chairman of the Friends of Boca Grande. “With that recommendation, I had to read the book and was drawn in from the opening chapters. Expecting a war story from cover to cover, Vicki Croke narrates a story about a man and his life that is only partially defined by war. Without giving too much away, it is a multi-level love story of a man and a woman, a man and elephants, and man and honor. The final chapters when Billy leads a party escaping the Japanese are spell binding when you look at all the obstacles the group faced. Finished the book in two days!”
Candice Shy Hooper, the president of the Johann Fust Library, said she and Roger are thrilled to feature this book.
“Roger and I go back a long way – we first met in the Civil War (the one at the Community Center, that is), and we both love military history,” she said. “So when he recommended this book to me, I knew I’d like it. Then I read it and realized I loved it. We agreed we should include it in the list of books nominated for the OBGBBC this year. It was the runaway favorite in the polling in the spring, and I couldn’t be more delighted.”
Hooper said she was first drawn to the book because it was touted as a great-unknown story of human and animal bonding and heroism in WWII. It’s the story of Billy Williams, a British veteran of WWI battles in North Africa, Afghanistan, and Syria, who emerges from those brutal battles with what today might be termed PTSD.
Back in England after the war, Billy wanted to get as far away from the memory of battlefields as he could so he applied for a job in the teak industry in Burma, where he would be in charge of teams of elephants and their handlers. He knew nothing about elephants, but he was clearly destined for their world. In short order he bonded with them and developed more humane methods for training and caring and working with them.
At one point, he knew by names and personal characteristics more than 600 elephants in his territory.
“Elephants have always fascinated me – I’ve been to Africa three times, and elephants are always the highlight of any African safari,” Hooper said. “I was eager to learn about these Asian elephants and how they have worked with humans for more than a century in the jungles of Burma.
“We are now commemorating the centennial of WWI, and it’s important for us to understand how that war ravaged the men who fought it and shaped our world today. This book is a great tale of how survivors of that war stitched their lives back together.”
Before she read the book, all Hooper knew of WWII in Burma was from the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” (which will be shown in the Boca Grande Community Center Auditorium closer to the time of the program). While there were no elephants in that bridge-building effort, once the Japanese invaded Burma they wanted to steal and use the elephants to build their bridges and haul supplies. Very quickly, Burma’s elephants became as much a strategic target for the Japanese Army as did the Allies. Billy was called back into service – to hide elephants from the Japanese.
“Just imagine that mission impossible assignment – hiding elephants!” Hooper said. “And that’s only the beginning of the WWII adventure with Williams and his elephants. It’s a terrifically exciting story, but for me, the best part of it is summarized in the author’s final paragraph of her introduction:
‘Later in life, Williams would have an epiphany. What the elephants meant to him had gone beyond notions of friendship or even family. The great animals, he decided, had become his religion. Through them, he had been saved reborn, and even christened – renamed as Elephant Bill. With them, he had gained a world of wisdom and compassion. In a way, he proudly told one writer, he had even become one.’
Through the elephants, Billy found the peace he had been seeking after World War I.”
Lewis explained the importance of the program to the community.
“OBGBBC is modeled on similar programs around the country,” said Roger Lewis, chairman of the Friends of Boca Grande. “Its purpose is to have the community focus on one book which will allow people on the island to talk to one another about the selected book. We think it would be great if everyone read Elephant Company, what a terrific icebreaker at parties.”
Tickets are free but limited, and will be available beginning January 4. You can reserve them by going to friendsofbocagrande.org. Copies of “Elephant Company” are available for purchase at the Library Foundation Office for $30 (cash or check only). The Foundation office is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Copies of the book are also available for check-out at the Johann Fust Library, and you can download it through the Lee County Library’s “OneClickdigital” app, which librarians can help you download to your smart phone.