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Likely Stories : The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

My favorite surprise gift in 2020 was from my bride:  The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.  This book turned out to be a fascinating look into the world below the oceans.  “Sy is a naturalist, and author of twenty acclaimed books of non-fiction for adults and children.”  She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, a border collie, and flocks of chickens.

The story begins with Sy’s visit to the New England Aquarium and a giant Pacific octopus.  She writes, “I knew little about octopuses […] But what I did know intrigued me.  Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen.  It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.  It can change color and shape.  It can taste with its skin.  Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. […] I’ve often had the feeling that the octopus I was watching was watching me back, with an interest as keen as my own” (1).

I always thought octopuses were horrible and ferocious creatures.  Sy set me straight.  She wrote, “A horror of giant octopuses and their kin, giant squid, has animated Western art forms from thirteenth-century Icelandic legends to twentieth-century American films.  The massive ‘hafgufa’ who ‘swallows’ men and ships and whales and everything it can reach’ in the Old Icelandic saga Orvar-odds is surely based on some kind of tentacled mollusk and gave rise to the myth of the kraken” (6).  I like the marriage of the beast and the sagas I love so much.

The octopus Sy examined was named Athena.  She had trouble keeping “track of her continually changing color, shape, or texture.  One moment, she’d be bright red and bumpy, and the next, she’d be smoother and veined with dark brown or white.  Patches on different parts of her body would change colors so fast—in less than a second—that by the time I register the last change, she would be onto another.  To borrow a phrase from songwriter John Denver, she filled up my senses” (13). 

Athena was, “Unconstrained by joints, her arms were constantly questing, coiling, stretching, reaching, unfurling, all in different directions at once.  Each arm seemed like a separate creature, with a mind of its own.  In fact, this is almost literally true.  Three fifths of octopuses’ neurons are not in the brain but in the arms.  If an arm is severed from an octopus’s body, the arm will often carry on as if nothing has happened for several hours” (13-14)

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is a tremendously interesting visit to a mysterious creature living below the sea.  8 Tentacles!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.