Shadows and Elephants
"Edward Hower is a writer
of talent and substance."
—William Kennedy, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Spiritualism, the conviction that the dead are able to contact living
people from an afterworld, gained popularity in America after the Civil
War, when grief-stricken survivors tried to contact the fallen. In an era
of break-away churches and utopian communes, the emerging theories of
Darwin and technological advances, ordinary people sought desperately to
prove to themselves they possessed immortal souls. Spiritualism also
offered women a chance to become leaders.
One such woman was Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian-born mystic who used her considerable intellectual gifts to rise to the top of the spiritualist hierarchy. Together with her partner, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a popular journalist and war hero, she attracted many of the leading thinkers and celebrities of the age, such as Thomas Edison and Abner Doubleday in New York; and in London, W.B. Yeats, and the young Mohandas P. Gandhi. But, hounded by the media, the subjects of scathing ridicule and notoriety, they moved from the parlors of Gilded Age New York City to the slums of India and again to Ceylon, attempting to spread their ideas.
Loosely based on the lives of Blavatsky and Olcott, Shadows and Elephants follows two unforgettable fictional creations, who are passionate in their friendship, courageous in the face of damnation in the press, and devoted utterly to their mission to contact the souls of the deceased and learn from their wisdom.
Shadows and Elephants is a sensuous historical novel with totally contemporary resonance, for indeed, Spiritualism has survived for over 130 years; reshaped today in eclectic New Age beliefs.
Praise for Shadows and Elephants
"Edward Hower has written a sympathetic
and wonderfully readable study of a brilliant fraud and her chief
accomplice. The characters are based on Madame Blavatsky, the Russian-born
19th century founder of Theosophy, and her protector Colonel Henry Steel
Olcott. The action moves quickly from the United States to India and
Ceylon, the homeland of mystics and fakirs. Hower's portrait of Blavatsky,
however, is full of affection; he presents her as a survivor, a big heart
and a genuine visionary. India, in Hower's prose, also becomes a
major character; it gleams and sweats with sensuality, mystery and
humanity. This is a stunning book, vivid, dramatic and full of
"Edward Hower's novel is an exploration of personal dynamics, as
well as a document about people who undertake an unusual spiritual
journey. It's a vivid road trip through territory the author sees in close
detail, an affecting story of love and friendship that is filled with
unusual, unexpected (and all too human) twists and
"I have never read a book which fulfills so completely John
Gardner's idea that a novel should be a "continuous dream." From its
evocative title to the astonishing "ascension" of its mysterious heroine
at the end, Shadows and Elephants is a mesmerizing experience for the
"Hower's knowledgeable enchantment with an enchanted India
illuminates this exploration of the peculiar mental and emotional life of
the notorious Madame Blavatsky as she seeks enlightenment in a land that
in no way takes her seriously. A generous and lively novel, Shadows and
Elephants shows that behind the smoke and mirrors and astral letters, the
mystical quest is the biggest maya of
"Edward Hower’s Shadows and
Elephants is one of the most engrossing novels I’ve read in the past
few years, and is certainly the most engaging—and entertaining—novel I’ve
read in quite some time. Given the present rise in spiritual concerns,
connected as they are with questions about the sterility of materialistic
culture, Hower’s superb fictional evocation of the world of Madame
Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott has a special pertinency today. In
describing them and their milieu, he manages a rare combination of comic
irony and sympathetic understanding: the wry attitude which a tolerant
Deity might feel, upon examining the record to date of the human race.
Hilarious as the novel frequently is, it also takes us into the deeper
regions of the psyche. Shadows and Elephants grows in emotional
intensity as it proceeds, and provides a resolution that strikes me as so
inspired I’m almost inclined to believe that unseen spirits moved the
Professor of English, Emeritus, Cornell University
EDWARD HOWER is the author of four previous novels. His writing has appeared in venues such as The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Southern Review, Epoch, The Transatlantic Review, Smithsonian; his reviews in the nation's most prestigious book pages. He was inspired to write Shadows and Elephants while on his second of two Fulbright fellowships and has been awarded creative writing grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Ithaca, New York and teaches at Cornell and Ithaca College.