Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006
Jacob Jankowski, an almost-graduate of Cornell Veterinary School during the Great Depression, loses his parents to a car accident. Overcome with grief, sadness, and a loss for what to do, Jacob walks out of his final exams, without answering a single question. He returns home, and stares up at the sign on his father’s Veterinary practice behind the house: E. Jankowski and Son: Doctors of Veterinary Medicine. He soon learns that the bank is taking his parents’ house and his father’s practice, since his father had been taking anything, including food, for payments. Not knowing what to do, Jacob starts walking. He walks until he comes across a slow-moving train, and he decides to jump it. He wants to get away, to wherever this train will take him.
This train belongs to The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus. Jacob soon gets put on the staff as a worker, or a “roustabout,” setting up tents and shows, and feeding the animals. However, Uncle Al, the circus director, and August, the menagerie leader, find out about Jacob’s veterinary background. They promote him to the show’s Veterinarian. He takes a liking to Marlena, the star of the show who creates routines with the horses, and she takes a liking to him as well. Marlena, though, is married to August, who is described as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” At first glance, he is a charming, well-versed man. However, he controls Marlena, as well as the animals, with hostility and anger. After a while, Uncle Al acquires an elephant named Rosie for his show. Rosie is said to be a magnificent performer, yet August cannot seem to even command Rosie to walk off of the train. After witnessing several brutal attacks on Rosie from August, Jacob finds out that Rosie does not understand English, only Polish. Luckily, Jacob speaks Polish, and he teaches August several phrases of command, and Rosie soon becomes the star of the circus, and no longer endures the consistent attacks from August.
August soon discovers the romantic feelings between his wife and Jacob and goes on a tirade. He “redlights” (which means to kick someone off the moving train) several workers as revenge to Jacob, since the workers are Jacob’s friends. He beats the animals, and he even beats Marlena after Jacob intervenes during an argument. A few of the workers who were redlighted survive, and come back to “get even” with August. I will not divulge in how they “got even,” since I don’t want to ruin the ending for those who have not read this book.
This story is told through memories of Jacob Jankowski, who is now “90 or 93 years old.” He lives in a nursing home, next door to which a circus has come into town. A fellow resident of the nursing home begins to tell stories of carrying water for elephants when he was young man working in a circus. Jacob is upset by this, since there is no such thing as carrying water for elephants. He does not explain why he is upset, since he never tells anyone about his working for the circus. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is brought to life through Jacob’s memories. Gruen uses information she learned from circus museums and experts, which in my opinion, really added to the historical significance of the book. The cynical “90 or 93 year old” Jacob adds humor to the story. He reminds me of my grandfather, who constantly recounted his memories, whether he knew he was doing it or not. The romance between Marlena and Jacob adds another layer to the story. Marlena is seen as somewhat untouchable since she is with August, but Jacob does not let that stand in his way. Gruen does an exceptional job in describing her characters. I felt love for Jacob and Marlena, hope for Jacob’s friends who have nothing but the circus in their lives, disgust for August and Uncle Al, and despair for the defenseless animals. The true life, behind-the-scenes views of a circus drew me into this story, as I’m sure it will for other readers.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen