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Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived
by Ralph Helfer

Published: 1998-08-26
Paperback : 325 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members

Spanning several decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal ...

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Spanning several decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, an apprenticeship with the legendary Mahout elephant trainers in the Indian teak forests, and their eventual rise to circus stardom in 1940s New York City. Modoc is a captivating true story of loyalty, friendship, and high adventure, to be treasured by animal lovers everywhere.

Editorial Review

Modoc is the joint biography of a man and an elephant born in a small German circus town on the same day in 1896. Bram was the son of an elephant trainer, Modoc the daughter of his prize performer. The boy and animal grew up devoted to each other. When the Wunderzircus was sold to an American, with no provision to take along the human staff, Bram stowed away on the ship to prevent being separated from his beloved Modoc. A shipwreck off the Indian coast and a sojourn with a maharajah were only the beginning of the pair's incredible adventures. They battled bandits, armed revolutionaries, cruel animal trainers, and greedy circus owners in their quest to stay together. They triumphed against the odds and thrilled American circus audiences with Modoc's dazzling solo performances, only to be torn apart with brutal suddenness, seemingly never to meet again. Hollywood animal trainer Ralph Helfer rescued Modoc from ill-treatment and learned her astonishing story when Bram rediscovered her at Helfer's company. His emotional retelling of this true-life adventure epic will make pulses race and bring tears to readers' eyes. --Wendy Smith


Chapter Excerpt

On a gray, foggy morning they came, rising on the cold north winds from the icy peaks, sweeping across the timberland into the gray, misty valleys of the Black Forest . . . baby sounds! Somewhere below the fog layer, the insistent wails of a baby could be heard, their temerity as if from Mother Earth herself.

And then another voice arose. Deeper, brassy, trumpety, but still a . . . baby sound. It, too, was whisked away through the thermals, swirling and dashing about until it met its kin. A quiet moment hung over all. Then, together, they joined--the wailing and trumpeting became one. They drifted over the countryside, beyond the river, across the corn rows and the desolate fields of last summer's picking.

The first sunlight of the morning bathed the chilly Hagendorf Valley with its burnt ochre sphere. It seemed to rest, but for a moment, at the foot of Olymstroem Mountain upon a rather small but quaint old German farm. It was from there both baby sounds emanated.

A rutted dirt road snaked up the center of the farm, separating the pale yellow German-Swiss style two-story house from the large, old, rock and timber barn. The barn's rock supports had tumbled down at every corner, resembling small volcanoes with boulders spewed in all directions. The rotting wood structure seemed to be part of the earth itself, and spoke bluntly of the many years of winter storms it had survived.

Circus paraphernalia lay everywhere. A huge old wooden circus wagon, its hitch buried deep, wheels dug into the mud from years before, showed chips of red and gold paint still visible on its frame. Pieces of candy-striped tent hung over the barn's windows. A broken ticket booth lay in shambles, its general admission sign still hanging from the roof. Chickens, geese, a few pigs ran free around the dwellings. This was the Gunterstein farm.

The baby sounds had separated. From the second-story window of the house only the soft crying of an infant could be heard. Hannah, the midwife, an exceedingly large and buxom woman, finished powdering the infant's behind. After bundling him in a soft, warm blue blanket, she handed the baby boy to his mother. Katrina Gunterstein gently took her firstborn. A pretty woman in her early forties, the daughter of a dirt farmer, Katrina had a wide strong jaw and a high forehead that spoke well of her inherited German peasant stock. Kissing his bright pink cheeks, she opened her nightgown and offered the baby her full breast. The touch of the infant's tiny mouth on her nipple sent a ripple of pure ecstasy through her body.

"Oh, Josef! This is a boy to be proud of. Is he not wonderful?" She looked through tears of joy at her husband, who stood at her bedside.

Josef was the epitome of a proud father gazing down at his infant son. His slender body and chiseled high cheekbones made him appear much taller than his six-foot frame. Katrina had found the man of her dreams in Josef, a quiet, gentle man of the Jewish faith. After many failed attempts during their ten years of marriage, they were now blessed with a marvelous boy child. Although his blond hair and features came from the strong Nordic side of Katrina's family, he had the sweet and gentle warmth that radiated so strongly from Josef's heritage. They named him Bram, after Josef's father.

"The boy's going to make a fine elephant trainer," said Josef, his eyes full of anticipation.

Josef, as his father years before him, worked for a small village circus in the nearby town of Hasengrossck. He was a trainer, a trainer of animals. More precisely, Josef was a trainer of elephants. At times Katrina thought he loved the elephants more than he loved her, but better it be animals, she thought with a smile, than another woman. Besides, this love for animals was what made him the wonderful, caring man he was.

An ear-splitting trumpet shocked them out of their bliss. Realizing there was another baby to celebrate, Josef kissed his wife, the infant, and, in his excitement, even Hannah, and dashed downstairs, embarrassed at the mistake he had just made.

He felt a chill in the air as he stepped out on the porch. As morning broke, the earth's shadows eased their way down the mountains. Winter had worn out its welcome and spring was pushing the flowers up in the meadows. By the look of things it was going to be a wonderful day. Josef hugged himself briskly to keep out the cold and headed for the barn. Swinging open the large, creaky barn door, he stepped inside.

The scent of alfalfa, oat hay, and saddle soap, and the pungent odor of elephant stool in the damp musty air greeted Josef's nostrils. Bale upon bale of hay was neatly stacked against one side of the wall and formed large rectangular steps leading to the very top of the barn. From there one could touch the huge rafters that held the old structure together. On the opposite side of the barn were animal stalls, tack, and feed rooms. Inside the spacious tack room, the leather horse saddles, bridles, and halters had been buffed and polished to a high sheen. The brass buckles, D-rings, and cinches all sparkled, each piece having its appropriate place.

Hanging in an area of their own were huge elephant cinches and girth straps. A large elephant headpiece straddled a wire-and-cloth dummy elephant head. Heavy chains, clevises, a large coil of rope, and various elephant hooks and shackles were neatly laid out on rough-cut wooden shelves. Adjoining stalls housed the farm horses, goats, pigs, and milk cows.

Silhouetted in the rays of the early morning sunlight filtering through the large open doors at the rear of the barn was a giant living form. Vapors rose from the monolithic body, spiraling up to the single hooded lamp hanging from a rafter high above in a feeble attempt to light the area below. The form had a strange resemblance to the locomotives hissing and steaming in the darkened train barn at Frankfurt station, waiting to be hitched to a long line of boxcars.


The foregoing is excerpted from Modoc by Ralph Helfer. All rights reserved. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Suggested by Members

Do you think that Bram was meant to go to India?
How did you feel about North?
by abbeyonekanobe (see profile) 01/14/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Know that it is fiction.
by bcarroll (see profile) 06/14/16
The author is a well known animal trainer in Hollywood and has been in several movies with his animals, usually as a driver or something since some of the animals won't perform without him near.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by [email protected] (see profile) 02/11/18

One of my favorite books. Highly recommended!

  "Untrue Story of Modoc"by bcarroll (see profile) 06/14/16

Many of our book club members enjoyed reading this book but were so disappointed to find out it isn't true that they couldn't even rate it. They felt cheated. It is like an adventure story with a boy... (read more)

  "Moldoc"by actmccarthy (see profile) 12/03/15

Loved this story but as more and more disasters occurred we realized the story couldn't be true. That was disappointing but the story was inspirational and beautiful anyway

  "Modoc; the World's Greatest Elephant"by abbeyonekanobe (see profile) 01/14/12

I was entralled with this beautiful story. My love for animals told me to treat them with love but until I read this book I hadn't realized how intelligent and loving elephants could be. It is an absolutely... (read more)

  "Modoc Book Review"by whickidd (see profile) 02/21/11

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