Book Review: 'How to Be a Good Creature'

“How to be a Good Creature” is a New York Times bestseller; author Sy Montgomery is a National Book Award finalist.

“How to be a Good Creature” is a New York Times bestseller; author Sy Montgomery is a National Book Award finalist.

By Cheryl Scott

Not many people would let a tarantula crawl across their hand and consider it a “magical” experience. Nor allow an octopus to grasp their arm with its suckers, but author Sy Montgomery did both, telling stories about the animals in “How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals.”

The Nature Book Club of the Trailside Museum of Natural History will hold a free discussion of “How to Be a Good Creature” at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2. The museum is located at 738 Thatcher Ave. in River Forest. For details, contact 708-366-6530 or

Montgomery wrote that she felt a connection with the pinktoe tarantula, a calm creature that rarely bites and gets its name from its bright pink toes.

“No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal,” Montgomery wrote about the tarantula named Clarabelle. “A wave of tenderness swept over me as I watched her walk, softly, slowly, and deliberately, across my skin.”

Montgomery also noticed the humanity in Octavia, the octopus at the New England Aquarium who greeted environmental researchers like Montgomery by grabbing her arm with curiosity and playfulness (Octavia also used this distraction to grab a bucket of fish with her other arm at least once). In a heartwarming yet sad chapter, Montgomery wrote about how Octavia laid thousands of eggs and then devoted all of her energy to protecting the eggs for months, despite her ailing health and without the octopus realizing that the unfertilized eggs would never hatch into offspring.

“But eggs fertile or no, Octavia’s devotion to them was profoundly beautiful,” Montgomery wrote. “In each caress, each cleaning, each hour of steadfast protection of this mother’s eggs, I could see the ancient shape of life’s first love. Thousands of billions of mothers – from the gelatinous ancestors of Octavia, to my own mother – have taught their kind to love, and to know that love is the highest and best use of a life.”

In “How to be a Good Creature,” Montgomery makes the reader fall in love with all of the animals she loved and mourn for those who have passed. The author discusses how one of her favorite writers, Farley Mowat, taught her that books must have emotional resonance to readers. It is clear that Montgomery took this lesson to heart, as almost all of the chapters contain intense emotional moments that tug at the heartstrings.

Not all of the creatures Montgomery writes about are as unusual as a tarantula and an octopus. She devotes five chapters to pets she’s had over the years: three dogs and a pig. With one of her dogs (a border collie named Sally), Montgomery tells a story about some of the eerie circumstances that led her to meeting Sally and the universal truth that life sometimes brings you just what you’re looking for at exactly the right time.

In addition to discussing her bonds with animals, Montgomery writes about her life growing up and how it was clear from a young age that she was meant to work with animals. As a toddler, she accidentally walked into the hippo pen at the zoo, but she made it out unharmed. After a traumatic health problem as a child that Montgomery candidly discusses, she did not want to eat, play or talk. Her parents realized that her love of animals might be the only thing to bring her back to life. They bought her an animal cereal bowl, cut her toast into animal shapes and eventually adopted a Scottish Terrier named Molly, whom Montgomery loved and admired like a sister. Montgomery longed to run wild with her Scottie and possess dog “superpowers,” such as a heightened sense of hearing and smell.

Although she did not gain “superpowers,” Montgomery did find a way to make animals feel at ease with her early in her career, when she was studying emus in Australia. Montgomery followed advice from her role model, Jane Goodall, whose famous chimpanzee studies were detailed in National Geographic. Instead of trying to hide to observe creatures, both Goodall and Montgomery stayed present with the animals until they accepted the human presence. Montgomery wore the same clothes every day to put a group of three emus at ease and to become a part of the group for six months on an unpaid research stint.

“But in my last hours with the emus, I realized something that would prove, to me as a writer, very important,” Montgomery wrote. “To begin to understand the life of any animal demands not only curiosity, not only skill, and not only intellect. I saw that I would also need to summon the bond I had with Molly (Scottish Terrier). I would need to open not only my mind, but also my heart.”