The Bookshelf: Tammi Truax Explores America's First Elephants in Novel-in-Verse

Jun 21, 2019

The first elephants to arrive in America were imported from India and Africa in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Those elephants were paraded up and down the east coast. Their owners charged people to see the elephant, which was such a sought-after experience, even President George Washington considered it worth the price of admission.

The story of these elephants, and the young slave who cared for them, is the focus of the new novel in verse by the current Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, Tammi Truax. NHPR's Peter Biello stopped by her home in Eliot, Maine to chat about the book, which is called, For to See the Elephant.

Read Tammi Truax’s Top 5 Verse Novel Recommendations

1. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. "It’s just a masterpiece, a beautiful, beautiful book. It’s  about a child’s experience of the dust bowl. She (Hesse) has been a big influence on me as a verse novelist."

2. Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill. "I’ve read all of her books and love them all. But Your Own Sylvia was my first verse novel. I stumbled upon it at the Portsmouth Public Library and brought it home and devoured it. And I love reading a verse story about a poet. It’s really an amazing book."

3. Fortune's Bones by Marilyn Nelson. "Marilyn Nelson is also a big influence on me as a poet. She’s just a masterful writer. Fortune's Bones happens to be a story she wrote about the bones that are found in Connecticut of an enslaved man. The doctor did some... stuff to his body. Medical Science would be the “rationalization” of what he did. That’s a real Connecticut story based on facts."

4. Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. "Gorgeous, gorgeous historical writing about an artist that really lived in Italy long ago. She was a female artist when females weren’t allowed to be masterful artists. It’s a real powerful “Me Too” verse novel. It’s got some serious themes to it."

5. The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf. "This is a really entertaining verse novel about the Titanic. Everybody gets a point of view: all different passengers including a rat and even an iceberg gets to talk. It’s just a really interesting way to look at the last ride."

Things did not end well for either of those elephants, Gaja and Big Bette. You turn a pretty critical eye towards the people who were basically exploiting these animals and selling them over and over again. Could you talk a little bit about the element of cruel capitalism here?

I didn't set out to tell a judgmental story that condemned that behavior, but that's the story. It's fact-based. They did bring her with the idea of making a profit by her and the advertisements about a quarter to see the elephant, half of that to see a child, comes from newspaper accounts.

It seems like what you're writing about here--the arrival of these elephants--seeing and selling access to these elephants is the precursor to the modern day circus, the Barnum & Bailey kind of stuff. Is that what you were going for? 

Yes, because I believe that's true. Some of the early guys who were doing this kind of business, I do think they had a benevolent notion to what they were doing, that they were educating the masses who would otherwise never see or know creatures from distant places. Maybe that's just a big fat juicy rationalization for doing what they were doing.

The relationship that William, the slave boy, forms with both of these elephants is really heartfelt and strong. He feels it strongly and the way you write the elephants, they seem to feel it strongly, too. Is there a basis in the historical record for William?

There is. I didn't know it until the very end, literally until the manuscript had gone to the publisher. I had decided to write the keeper as an enslaved man without having anything to go on at all. Nothing. Zero in the record. But I have done a great deal of research on black history in New England for a novel I've spent twelve years of my life writing and I've learned a great deal about New England and black history and know that most of the time enslaved people were simply erased from the record. They were there, they were here, they were doing all of this work. But that's not going to be noted. Everything about who owns these elephants and who profited refers to the white, wealthy men.

But I couldn't write the story with a white guy doing that. I couldn't accept it as credible or as a responsible way to tell the story, so I made up a character who was not named William. And after it went to press, I found a book published in 2016, by a historian named Peter Benes, and he was writing about itinerant traveling entertainments of all kinds. He found one little record, like an ad, an announcement paid for and taken out by the white, wealthy owner of the elephant in the Providence paper in 1797, and it said something to the effect of, "I will not be responsible for debts incurred by William, the black man who cares for the elephant."

Why did you feel like you needed to have some kind of historical record that he existed? You're writing a work of fiction. You could easily invent a fact like that and I would have taken it as face value as a reader.

Thanks, that's good to know. I do feel held to a high level of responsibility in writing historical fiction to get it as right as I can. One of the reasons I think I've been attracted to write historical fiction is because I have been really disappointed to find that so much of what I read is wrong. We've been taught inaccurate history, and I don't want to perpetuate that.

I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about your status as Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, which comes with the duty to carry out some kind of project. What's your project?

I'm still hammering it out, but I think that I have the framework of what I want to do and have been thinking about it for a long time, frankly. It's called "Bridges: Poetry as a Bridge." That's a play on Portsmouth being a bridge town, but also the many ways we can use poetry to bridge gaps. I want to play with that in a number of different ways.

First aspect of my project that we're doing is something that's always been a part of my work for pay, my day job, which is a family literacy program, and we're going to gift every baby born at Portsmouth Hospital with a beautiful book of poetry that Tommy De Paola, another New Hampshire artist, has illustrated.

One of my primary hopes for a bridge is to build a more active relationship with Portsmouth's sister city, which is Nichinan, Japan, and I'd love to do that with poetry. Poetry is a big deal in Japan. Their poets are rockstars. And they've given so much to the world of poetry with their forms, and I'd like to explore that in different ways.