With plenty of heart, acclaimed naturalist Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, 2015, etc.) makes the convincing case that all animals—great and small—can teach us compassion.
Ever since her parents gave her a Scottie puppy, the author’s fascination with the animal world has been insuppressible, and she made that obsession into a career writing about animals in more than 20 books. Montgomery’s latest, however, is not merely an examination of one species, as in The Soul of an Octopus and other books. Here, the author looks at 13 of the most important animals in her life and how they changed her. There’s the aforementioned Scottie, Molly, and three other beloved dogs, but there’s also a pack of emus, a tarantula, and an octopus named Octavia. Each animal receives its own praiseful chapter. For instance, Clarabelle the tarantula is treated with wonder: “Most spiders, after injecting prey with paralyzing venom, pump fluid from their stomach into the victim to liquefy the meal, then suck it dry and toss the skin away. Tarantulas do it differently. Clarabelle ground up her food with teeth behind her fangs.” Montgomery consistently depicts nature scenes with awe, and she occasionally borders on a preachy tone—but not often, and she also reveals certain details about her personal life, including her rocky relationship with her parents. In “The Christmas Weasel,” Montgomery compares her difficult mother to an ermine. As she watched the furry white animal (its fur “seemed to glow, like the garment of an angel”) after it attacked one of her hens, the author couldn’t help but think of her mother’s own ferocity: how she overcame poverty, learned to fly, got a job at the FBI, and married an Army officer. “Her achievement,” writes the author, “was a feat as staggering as an ermine taking down a hen.”
The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about ourselves.