How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on September 6, 2021 at 3:55 pm
Is there a special person who’s had a tremendous impact on your life? Someone who played a defining role in shaping who you are, who you’ve become? In How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) we meet several key influencers, none of whom are human. 
Credit: “Wild animals and pets,” by Color_life, iStock.

Montgomery explores the natural world with a moving sensitivity. Decades of travelling the globe researching, writing about and living with a variety of species has shifted her perspective. As these animals reveal their truths to her, they provide important lessons, which profoundly affect her:

“The world, I realized, brimmed even fuller with life than I had suspected, rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.”

The idea for this memoir sprang to life after a TV interview with author and animal issues reporter Vicki Croke. She asked Montgomery: what had animals taught her about her life? Immediately she replied: “How to be a Good Creature.” Encouraged by her editor to write this book, Montgomery realized she had many life lessons to share. Divided into 10 chapters, these loving portraits introduce the reader to 13 cherished creatures: Some are pet companions, others she meets during her travels. 

Montgomery lives with her husband, Howard Mansfield, in New Hampshire with a border collie named Thurber and a flock of hens. The bestselling author of 21 books is known for her dedicated research. For her books, articles and films, Montgomery has trekked through jungles, natural habitats and aquariums to meet all types of creatures from gorillas, tigers, piranhas, electric eels and pink dolphins to snow leopards and great white sharks. Beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Green, the memoir includes personal photos and a reading list of inspiring books.

Those who have experienced the joy of having an animal companion, will relate to Montgomery: 

“To me, one of the most heartbreaking conditions of life on Earth is that most of the animals we love, with the exception of some parrots and tortoises, die so long before we do.”

Sy Montomery

In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. During a difficult year, Montgomery becomes submerged in loss: Her rented home is for sale, her publisher pulls out of her book contract and her father is dying of cancer. To cheer her, her husband surprises her by adopting a tiny sickly piglet. The runt, named Christopher Hogwood, grows famous and in size to about 700 pounds. His loving nature attracts admirers and international supporters. Montgomery finds solace:

“Studying at the cloven feet of the porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savor this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children. Also, his big heart, and huge body, made my sorrows feel smaller.”

The sparse but lyrical writing is a lesson in brevity. Often we only learn of specific details at the end of a chapter or through sudden pivots in the writing. For example, her career choices strain her relationship with her wealthy conservative parents. They disown her when she marries a liberal Jewish man: 

“. . . my husband was never welcome in their home–not even for my father’s funeral. Though I was with him when he died, my father never told me he forgave me, and my mother could not accept my living a life so different from their own.”

Skilled at meting out information, Montgomery uses these creature portraits to provide a window into her troubled upbringing. One Christmas morning a white ermine breaks into their hen house and murders one of their hand-raised chickens. Instead of feeling wrath, Montgomery is enthralled with the small killer and likens it to an angel. The fearless ermine resembles her mother’s determined spirit. In a seamless and unexpected transition, Montgomery recollects her mother’s rise from hard-scrabble living to upper-class elite. Earlier that year, her emotionally distant mother died from painful pancreatic cancer, but:

“. . . had not once whined or wept. As I looked into the piercing black eyes of that white weasel, I realized how much I had admired my mother, and how much I missed her. . . Like a struck match chases away darkness, this creature’s incandescent presence left no room for anger in my heart–for it had been stretched wide with awe, and flooded with the balm of forgiveness.”

When Montgomery spirals into a suicidal depression, a work trip to remote mountains intervenes. Capturing, studying and releasing wild tree kangaroos proves to be therapeutic and suddenly freeing. Though some animal circles may dismiss projecting feelings onto animals, anyone who has shared a connection understands Montgomery’s assertion: 

“. . . emotions aren’t confined to humans. A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.”

The last chapter introduces us to her latest instructor, a puppy named Thurber:

“When the student is ready, the adage goes, the teacher will appear. This time, the student wasn’t ready. The teacher came anyway. I was fifty-eight when Thurber appeared in my life, and I soon saw that I still had more lessons to learn on my journey of trying to be a good creature. . . You never know, even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be that something wonderful is right around the corner.”

Sy Montomery

These candid chronicles show us there’s more to this world than we know; illuminating the critical need to respect and advocate for our fellow sentient beings. Montgomery’s deep insights are not just for animal lovers, but provide a valuable glimpse beyond our limited realm and speak to the core of our humanity. 


In Recently Reviewed on August 20, 2021 at 3:08 pm

This year’s annual Powell Street Festival in Vancouver included the launch of ReturnPublished by Mata Ashita: The Japanese Canadian Writers’ Circle, the premier issue of this special e-zine features attractive design by Sen Canute and works by JC artists and writers. 

Thanks so much to Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Sen Canute and Nicola Koyanagi for moderating the group and including a chapter excerpt from my MFA project, The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered In. I’m honoured to be part of this collection. Congratulations to the organizers and all contributors.

Summer Reading: My 10 Essential Books of Creative Nonfiction

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on July 20, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Take a look around these days and you’ll see just about everyone has a list of must-read books. There’s no shortage of material – the selection of topics encompasses every possible genre and category. With this vast range of subjects competing for our time and attention, where does one start?

Reading in the field – scanned 1881 engraving

This personal list of essential creative nonfiction books is specifically for writers. It incorporates key examples on how to craft creative nonfiction (CNF) plus stellar illustrations where writers used form and structure in unique ways throughout their memorable works. If writing CNF is an art, these manuals demonstrate the tricks of the trade or simply inspire because of their artistry.

  1. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Miller and Paola are both English professors and present the nitty-gritty of writing and research basics. Different CNF forms are detailed and explained, from personal, lyrical, braided and hermit-crab essays to sketch portraits, collage and graphic memoirs, to mixed media and digital works. It’s no surprise this resource has become a standard reference in many CNF courses and programs.
  2. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. If you’re looking for succinct advice on how to craft narrative nonfiction, Hart clearly dissects and defines each element, from story, structure and point of view, to action and dialogue. He explains these principles in a no-nonsense, easy-to-follow style you would expect from an award-winning journalist and teacher. Hart’s helpful tips can immediately be applied to writing both shorter magazine pieces and longer book-length narratives.
  3. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. After attending a funeral and hearing many tributes, one struck Gornick as particularly memorable. The difference, she realized later, is that it had been composed, organized and structured. It raised the question: How do we tell our stories? Utilizing her years of teaching MFA programs, Gornick decided to tackle this question by showing readers how to recognize truth in writing, which she believes is the essence of what makes good writing.
  4. The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks by Susan Shapiro. Writers who yearn to be published take note – Shapiro promises fast results and cites five weeks or less. With more than 20 years of experience as a writing professor, she has tutored thousands of students using her popular “instant gratification takes too long” technique. For both emerging and experienced writers aiming to get past the slush pile, Shapiro’s results-driven approach is the how-to guide.
  5. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Another highly touted and often quoted tome by an award-winning author, Dillard uses this memoir as a vehicle to impart sage advice and motivation. She encourages writers to establish positive working routines, and to include activities such as regular reading and ongoing writing. She also cautions students not to save or hoard what they deem “good” passages for later use but to continue pushing ahead with the writing.
  6. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott. Elliott excels at using highly personal braided essays to explore complex issues within the Indigenous community. Within this construct, the Tuscarora writer examines how the trauma of colonialism has resulted in generational cycles of poverty, obesity and disease. In easy-to-understand prose, she outlines how this cause-and-effect sequence continues to shape her community’s experiences and environment today. Any writer unfamiliar (as I was) or contemplating utilizing a braided essay format, this instructive work provides tremendous insight on the design and assembly.
  7. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear. In describing a difficult year, Maclear takes the reader on a month-by-month bird-watching adventure. Sparely written, she masterfully combines minimalist prose, expressive metaphors and philosophical musings to express her grief and anxiety over her father’s illness and resulting artistic slump. The writer and children’s book author contrasts this presentation with unusual stylistic conventions such as including lists and drawings. Filled with an ample array of writing methods and strokes of innovation, Maclear is sure to provide any CNF writer with imaginative ideas to consider.
  8. Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto. This memoir recounts the hardships of the Second World War from the different perspectives of Sakamoto’s interned Japanese Canadian grandmother and his Scottish grandfather who became a prisoner of war. These traumatic events provide the backdrop to the biracial writer’s own upbringing while skillfully interweaving Canadian history with themes of culture, ethnicity and identity.
  9. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. The idea for this beautifully illustrated memoir sprang to life after a TV interview. Montgomery, who has travelled the world and spent decades researching, writing about and living with animals, realized she had many life lessons to share. In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. Through these creature portraits, she provides a window into her own troubled upbringing.
  10. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Scan any number of essential book lists and you’re likely to stumble upon this title. Thoreau’s account of his time spent in the solitude of nature, living in semi-isolation and near self-sufficiency, is viewed both directly and indirectly as a vast contribution to CNF. With his skill for prose, Thoreau is regarded as one of the greatest American writers, and is credited for his enormous influence on scores of seasoned writers in the areas of social reform, philosophy and the environment.

When it comes to not-to-be-missed recommendations, this list of essential craft and inspirational CNF works is only the tip of the iceberg. All writers can reap their benefits. Whether it’s a specific process to glean or an inventive example to emulate, there’s much we can all learn from these fellow writers and the wisdom they impart. Happy reading! – S.H.