It was animals that sent Sy Montgomery into a deep, nearly suicidal depression — and animals that rescued her and pulled her back. In “How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals,” Montgomery writes about her profound connection with animals, all animals, and how this became the focus of her life.
Rather than a traditional chronological narrative, the memoir is structured in 13 stand-alone chapters, each centering on a different animal. Some are pets, but most are wild — emus, tarantulas, ermines, octopuses, kangaroos. Not animals that most people fall in love with, but Montgomery is not most people.
Animals, she writes, taught her to be a better, more compassionate human being. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” she writes.
Over the course of the book, the reader comes to understand Montgomery’s lonely upbringing. She was the only child of a tough military father and a Southern steel magnolia mother who drank too much and was almost certainly abusive, a mother who wanted her daughter to be frilly and girlie.
Montgomery, however, wanted to be a dog. And when she realized she would never be able to give birth to puppies, she swore off babies forever.
When her parents got her a Scottie dog, everything improved. “I remember spending hours lying on the floor, my head resting on my arm, inches from her face, watching her sleep, trying to absorb her scent, her breath, her dreams.”
That enormous curiosity about animals is the thread of Montgomery’s life and this book. She spends weeks in Australia, studying three young emus. At the New England Aquarium, she makes friends with an octopus. (When they turn white, they are calm, and Montgomery has a knack for turning them white.)
Back home, she finds herself admiring the bright-eyed ermine that killed her favorite chicken. “You’d think I’d have been overwhelmed with anger, out for vengeance,” she says. But instead, she is fascinated. “With dazzling white fur, a hammering pulse and a bottomless appetite, the ermine was ablaze with life.” The creature reminds her, oddly, of her mother.
But anyone who loves an animal knows that heartbreak is inevitable. “Most of the animals we love … die so long before we do,” she writes. And when her beloved pig dies, followed closely by her border collie, Montgomery is lost.
“Though I still had my beloved husband, our lovely home, friends who cared, and meaningful work — blessings that had brought joy to every day — it all felt like nothing. … Weeks went by, and then months. Still my despair felt bottomless.”
What shakes her out of this dangerous depression is a trip to Papua, New Guinea, where she helps track, study and band the elusive tree kangaroo. This work pulls her out of her funk, reminding her of everything she holds most dear.
These creatures “carried within them the wild heart that beats inside all creatures — the wildness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wildness that keeps us on this spinning planet.”
This lovely, wise book is illustrated with black and white paintings that are childlike in their simplicity — the big eyes of the border collie, the smile of the pig — making this appear to be a book for children. It could be. But it could also be a book for anyone who has ever been entranced by another living creature. (Border collie lovers, beware: You will need Kleenex. Everyone else should be OK.)
How to Be a Good Creature
By: Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 200 pages, $20.