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. 

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