Recent Reading

So I was reading this book called ZAMBA written by an animal trainer, Ralph Helfer, about this lion he owned and trained. And in some ways I liked this book. It’s very anecdotal rather than having any kind of coherent story line as such, but some of the anecdotes are truly touching. Like the thing after the storm when the horses died? And the flood at the end? Wow.

But right at the beginning, I was so peeved at the author and I’m not sure I ever got over it, because he said this: working with a lion presented such huge challenges because the big cats are solitary animals and not really primed to be social. [This isn’t a direct quote, but it’s what he said.]

And I thought:

A) This guy, who is supposed to be such an amazing trainer and particularly into lions, nevertheless knows so little about lions that he doesn’t even know they live in prides, which every single American kindergartner knows, or

B) In order to make his decision to raise and train a lion seem more impressive to his readers, those rubes, he is totally lying about lion behavior, even though every single reader has got to know that this statement he’s making about lions being solitary animals is completely bogus.

I’m going for option B, but jeez, really? This is so not a good thing to do. The lying to the reader thing, I mean. Even if you’re doing it to sound impressive. Even if it’s transparently false. No.

So, this was nonfiction, but IMO it would work the same way in fiction. If you’re writing about lions in a fictional world, but you’re reprensenting them as real lions, then you can’t go making totally false statements about lion behavior just because that makes your plot work out. Not even if you think your readers won’t know the difference. I mean, I will. And I’ll care, too.

So: most fictional wolves are terrible wolves, but this only bothers me if the wolves are being presented as real wolves. Etc.

You know who did a really good wolf? Gordon Dickson, in THE IRON YEARS. I heard somewhere that he wrote this, it was published, and a wolf researcher contacted him and said Man, did you ever mess that up, that was not a wolf, that was a dog, I am so tired of people putting wolves in their books but really they are dogs. And Dickson, amazingly enough, was impressed, asked a lot of questions about wolves, and rewrote the story so the animal was a wolf.


Even though I didn’t actually like the book all that well, I read it and by golly when he got through with it, that animal was indeed a wolf and not a dog. One of the very very few in fiction.

ANYWAY, not to wonder from the subject, but lions ARE NOT SOLITARY.

Nevertheless, yes, the trainer sounds like he was a really good guy, if a little too open minded about certain touchy-feeley nonsense (putting a lion on a vegetarian diet because eating meat promotes violence? Are you kidding me?); the lion sounds like an amazing animal; and some bits of the book were very emotionally affecting. So, hey, I’ll be discarding this book, but it wasn’t actually bad.

ps — When a friend of mine and I watched The Lion King? We made MANY SNARKY COMMENTS about the inaccurate lion behavior and then made up a much more logical plot in which the lion brothers — the king and his brother — stood shoulder to shoulder against the perfidy of, well, it doesn’t matter, the point is, in the real world, lion brothers are very important allies for each other. Isn’t that interesting?

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading”

  1. I may have to unearth that Dickson, I think it’s part of the books my husband owned but I’ve never read it. I’m not that fond of Dickson in general, although her wrote some books I’ve enjoyed. Have you seen Lasky’s WOLVES series? she supposedly researched wolves in depth for it. I haven’t read it although the daughter has at least one of them floating around, and I gather the wolves are viewpoint characters. I did read some of her owl books, also supposedly deeply researched. I guess they were. I just didn’t really believe in the culture and characters as anything other than humans in bird costumes.

    Never saw the lion king, although from what I’ve heard about it, my issues start with all the prey animals hanging out celebrating the birth of a new predator.

    Have you read CJ Cherryh’s Chanur books? The main culture is clearly leonine-based, although I don’t recall brothers being important. That is interesting, and it’s too bad the author hadn’t known it.

  2. I think books from the pov of an animal are really difficult to pull off. I’m not sure it’s ever been done well except for:

    and Felix Saltin’s BAMBI.

    As far as I’m concerned, no other animal pov have ever succeeded. I’ll have to look up Lasky”s series, thanks for the pointer.

    I love the Chanur books. She did a very good, real-feeling nonhuman society, but although the hani looked leonine, the culture of a sentient species is obviously going to depart from its evolutionary roots.

    Brothers are also very important for cheetahs — which you wouldn’t immediately guess since next to lions, cheetahs look solitary — at first glance.

  3. Tad Williams’ first book TAILCHASER’S SONG might be another. I only read it when it first came out and I was less perceptive. It’s cats. I’m not a cat person but it struck me as plausible. Certainly more than humans in animal costume. I remember comparisons to the effect of ‘the cat equivalent of WATERSHIP DOWN’. The mythology Williams invented worked for me. I should fish it off the shelf and reread it.

    In your own YA field there are Diane Duane’s Cat Wizard books (offshoots of the Young Wizards). Possibly because of the wizard angle they are not plausible IMO as real animal POV books.

    I’ve read all three of your good examples, BTW. I loved the rabbits and the deer, but the horse left me cold. Maybe I was the wrong age for it – I was a kid and reading it with my Mom’s memory of crying over it in the back of my mind and … nothing. I remember reading it and waiting to connect to it. Never did. I was a typical girl in being horse-mad for some years, too. Isn’t it strange how some objectively good books just don’t have the same effect on all readers, even when all conditions to have such an effect seem to be in place?

  4. Nope, for me, Tailchaser’s Song didn’t work at all. The cats were just not enough like real cats. As a fantasy, sure; as cats, no. Domestic animals are tough: Tailchaser’s Song totally ignored the important relationship between people and cats, for example. REAL cats, in my experience, do not stake their honor on catching mice and feel embarrassed if they are forced to eat food out of a dish. Instead, they not only cheerfully eat food out of a dish and expect you to provide the kind of food they prefer, they also hang out on the back of the couch and beg for a taste of your ice cream. And get it. All that was completely absent from Tailchaser’s song, which was kind of offensive to actual cat owners.

    Plus, cats are sorta-kinda social in a feline sort of way, but real cat behavior does not at all resemble the society that existed in that book. I think cats are just harder to pull off than rabbits, because rabbits really ARE social in a big way, so you can set up a society that feels a lot more real.

    Okay, that was a long-winded way of saying, nope, not adding it to the list.

    But how can you not have loved BLACK BEAUTY? That is indeed a mystery.

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